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Types of Offences

Types of Offences

Rioting was a serious 'indictable' crime
Rioting was a serious 'indictable' crime

The decision to commit a defendant to a court for trial was made by a magistrate. To which court they were sent, depended on the type of offence committed.
By the eighteenth century, a law code was in place that defined the functions and powers of magistrates. The county " Quarter Sessions" and local ' Petty Sessions' were the normal place of trial; which one you were sent to, would depend on whether the crime was a 'Summary' or 'Indictable' offence.

Summary offences

If the magistrate thought the suspect could be guilty of a more minor 'summary offence' (a small crime like being drunk or causing a disturbance), he could try them in his own home. Some magistrates had a special room in their homes for this purpose. Otherwise, he would send them to be tried by two magistrates in a court called the PETTY SESSIONS (like the magistrates' Court today). This would be a speedy process and involve no jury. Both verdict and sentence were pronounced by the magistrates.

Indictable offences

If the magistrate thought the prisoner had committed an 'indictable offence' (a serious crime), he could 'indict' (send him or her to be tried) at one of two courts. The offence could be tried at the QUARTER SESSIONS (fairly serious offences) in front of a bench of magistrates or before a judge at the ASSIZES (very serious offences like murder or robbery with violence). At these courts a jury (or, strictly speaking, a 'petty' jury) decided on the verdict, and the judge or magistrates formulated and pronounced the sentence.

Felonies and Misdemeanours

These terms date back to the Middle Ages, when felonies were serious crimes that could result in the 'felon' forfeiting their life and goods, while misdemeanours were minor offences. By the 1830s, the distinction was no longer very clear cut. However, it still affected the punishment as only felonies were capital offences. Felons could also be arrested by force and the counsel of the accused felon had no right to address the jury until 1836.

For a more in-depth explanation of the 19th century system of criminal prosecution.

For more general information see the section on Courts Procedures.

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