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A Brief History of the Quarter Sessions

A Brief History of the Quarter Sessions

Prepared for ‘Victorian Crime and Punishment' by the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives Service
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the county magistracy was securely established in England as the institution by which most non-military aspects of County Government were carried out.

The office of justice of the peace and the complementary institution of Quarter Sessions can be traced back to the fourteenth century, when in 1327 Edward the third appointed men in every county to keep the peace.
By 1368 these justices of the peace were empowered to hear and determine cases brought to them on criminal matters, and in 1388 they were commanded to sit four times a year in their counties.

Following an act of 1462 Quarter Sessions were given much of the legal work previously carried out by the Sheriff. There are few surviving records for Bedfordshire before 1714. The earlier Quarter Sessions records for Bedfordshire are held at the Public Record Office and include a roll of Bedfordshire supervisors of the peace for 1314 and two sessions rolls for 1355-19 and 1363-4.

Justices of the Peace met four times a year at Epiphany (January) Easter (March/April) Midsummer (June/July) and Michaelmas (September/October) in formal courts of Quarter Sessions in the presence of a qualified lawyer, the Clerk of the Peace.

At each quarter session two or more justices sat with a jury and tried the most serious criminal offences within their remit. Justices investigated lawbreakers indicted by village constables and other officials for all ‘misdemeanours' – that is, crimes not punishable by the death penalty. Cases included theft, highway robbery, assault, burglary, rioting, drunkenness, profane swearing, refusing to attend Church and publicly denigrating the authorities of Church and State.

As landowners themselves, the magistrates were particularly zealous in protecting property, through laws against the poaching of fish, game and deer, the cutting of estate timber, the burning of moorland, encroachment on the manorial waste and rick burning.

As well as the Quarter Sessions for the County of Bedfordshire, the Borough of Bedford held Quarter Sessions in its own right until 1835 and from 1846 to 1955.
In addition to its role in criminal justice, quarter sessions had a variety of other responsibilities. One was to act as a court of appeal over decisions taken by justices acting in petty sessions, particularly in relation to poor law matters, and to hear presentments of highways in disrepair.