1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Quarter Sessions, Court of

31997931911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 22 — Quarter Sessions, Court ofWilliam Feilden Craies

QUARTER SESSIONS, COURT OF, in English law, the name for the justices of the peace of any county, riding, parts, division or liberty of a county, or of any county of a city or county of a town, in general or quarter sessions assembled; it includes the court of the recorder of a municipal borough having a separate court of quarter sessions. The word “general” in this context is contrasted with “special” or “petty.” The court is a local court of record having a limited criminal jurisdiction, and also to some extent civil jurisdiction. As a court of record it has, in addition to its other jurisdiction, power to punish summarily without the assistance of a jury con tempts committed in its presence, such as insults to the justices or disturbance of its proceedings. At the present time the whole of England and Wales is within the local jurisdiction of some court of quarter sessions. But the history of the court in counties is quite distinct from its history in boroughs.

Counties.—As regards counties the court originated in statutes of 1326, 1344 and 1360, which provided for justices in counties, and the commission of the peace. The court derived its name from the direction in a statute of 1388 that the “justices shall keep their sessions in every quarter of the year at the least.” By a statute of 1414 they were directed to make their sessions four times in the year: that is to say, in the first week after the feasts of St Michael, the Epiphany, the clause of Easter and the translation of St Thomas the Martyr, and more often if need be.[1] These dates have only been slightly varied, first in 1814 in consequence of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, later in 1830 by specifying the first week after the 11th of October, 28th of December, 31st of March and 24th of June respectively, instead of the church feasts; and in 1894 by giving the justices a limited power of fixing their sessions so as not to clash with the assizes. It will be seen that the statutes do not limit the justices to four sessions a year: and they are free to sit oftener by adjournment of the quarterly sessions to another time, and even to another place, in their county, or to hold additional sessions. All the sessions thus held are “general,” though not all may be “quarter” sessions. The Assizes and Quarter Sessions Act 1908 gave the useful power of dispensing with the holding of quarter sessions if there is no business to transact.

Constitution of the Court.—Such a court sits for every judicial county in England, and is composed of two or more of the justices in the commission of the peace for the county, including ex officio justices. The quorum of the court is fixed by the commission of the eace at two. At one time certain specified justices described as olpthe quorum must be present, but under the present commission there are no such persons. In certain counties more than one commission of the peace is issued, e.g. for the three ridings of Yorkshire (N. E. and W.) and the liberty of Ripon, the three parts of Lincolnshire (Lindsey, Kesteven and Holland), the isle of Ely and the rest of Cambridgeshire, the soke of Peterborough, and the rest of Northamptonshire.[2] In all counties, &c., except that of London, the justices in the commission elect a chairman and vice chairman, neither of them necessarily a lawyer, to preside at the sittings of the court. In the county of London there are a paid chairman and deputy chairman, who must be barristers of at least ten years' standing, and are appointed by the crown. There is special legislation as to quarter sessions in the county palatine of Lancaster; and in the Salford Hundred of that county there is a paid chairman. There is also special legislation as to Kent, and arrangements have been made by which in Sussex and Suffolk the quarter sessions for the east and west divisions are virtually distinct courts. Under the Quarter Sessions Act 1858 the court may sit in two divisions of at least two justices at the same time and place, but not simultaneously in separate parts of the same county, except under statutory authority as in London.

The court may sit while the assizes for the county are being held, but usually refrains from doing so because of the inconvenience which would be occasioned, and adjusts its sittings so as to avoid clashing with the assizes. The chief officer of the court is the clerk of the peace, who acts as clerk to the court, records its proceedings, calls and swears the juries, draws many of the indictments, receives the bills returned by the grand jury, arraigns the prisoners and taxes the costs. In a county he is a pointed by a standing joint-committee of the quarter sessions ancl)the county council, and as charge of, and responsibility for, the records and documents of the county subject to the directions of the custos rotulorum or the quarter sessions or the county council (Local Govt. Act 1888, s. 83).

Boroughs.—The jurisdiction of the court of quarter sessions of a borough does not depend upon the commission of the peace, but upon the Municipal Corporations Act 1882. Many boroughs have a separate commission of the peace (which does not contain the words of the county commission giving jurisdiction to try indictments), but have not received the grant of a separate court of quarter sessions: and such boroughs are within the jurisdiction of the court of quarter sessions for the county within. which the borough lies. Before the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, many boroughs had criminal jurisdiction under their charters. Under that act and the act of 1882 a grant of quarter sessions to a city or borough is made by the crown in council on petition of the town council. The recorder, a barrister of not less than five years' standing appointed by the crown, is sole judge of the court, though the mayor can adjourn it in the absence of the recorder; he has a discretion to fix his own dates for the holding of the court, so long as he holds it once in every quarter of a year; and it may be held more frequently if he think fit, or a secretary of state so directs; he has no power to allow, apportion, make or levy a borough rate or to grant a licence for the sale of excusable liquors by retail; a deputy may be appointed by the recorder, or in the event of his being unable to make the appointment by a secretary of state. Subject to these qualifications the court has the same jurisdiction as county quarter sessions.

The city of London is not subject to the Municipal Corporations Act 1882, and its court of quarter sessions is created by the city charters, and is held before the mayor and aldermen with the recorder. It does not now sit to try indictments, which all go to the Central Criminal Court.,

There is special legislation as to quarter sessions in the Cinque Ports. In a borough the clerk of the peace is appointed by the town council and holds office during good behaviour (Municipal Corporations Act 1882, s. 164).

Criminal Jurisdiction, Original.—Courts of quarter sessions in Counties and boroughs have both original and appellate jurisdiction depending on the commission of the peace and on legislation beginning in 1344. This jurisdiction is derived in counties from the commission of the peace, which directs the justices “to inquire the truth more fully by the oath of good and lawful men of the county, by whom the truth of the matter shall be better known of all manner 0 crimes, trespasses, and all and singular other offences of which the justices of our peace may or ought lawfully to inquire,” “and to hear and determine all and singular the crimes, trespasses and offences aforesaid” “according to the laws and statutes of our realm.” “Provided always that if a case of difficulty upon the determination of any of the premises before you shall happen to arise then let judgment in no wise be given” “unless in the presence of one of the justices of assize for the county." This proviso has 1 been read as requiring the justices to reserve the graver felonies for trial at the assizes, or to transmit to assizes indictments found at quarter sessions which raised difficult questions. Quarter sessions never dealt with forgery or perjury, but at one time assumed jurisdiction over almost every other form of crime. By the Quarter Sessions Act 1842 and subsequent legislation, they are forbidden to try the following offences: treason or misprision of treason; murder, capital felony or any felony (except burglary) which is punishable on a first conviction by penal servitude for life; offences against the king's, title, prerogative, person or government, or against either House of parliament; offences against the Oliicial Secrets Act 1889; offences subject to the penalties of praemunire; blasphemy and offences against religion, and composing or publishing blasphemous, seditious or defamatory libels; administering and taking unlawful oaths; perjury and subordination and making or suborning another to make a false oath, declarations or affirmations punishable as perjury or as a misdemeanour; abduction of women and girls and offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885; bigamy and offences against the laws of marriage; concealment of birth; bribery and corruption at elections or of agents or public officials (but they can try offences against the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889); setting tire to crops, woods and heaths; stealing or destroying certain classes of documents; offences against the factor sections (ss. 75-85) of the Larceny Act as amended by the Larceny Act 1901; and conspiracies to commit offences which the court could not try if committed by one person. Trials before the court with a jury are governed by the same procedure as trials on indictment in a court of assize. Under the Vagrancy Act 1823 and amending acts, they have special powers of sentencing incorrigible rogues sent to them by courts of summary jurisdiction, and under the act of 1360 and the commission of the peace they can, but now rarely do, exercise an original and summary jurisdiction as to articles of the peace (see Recognizance), They have power to estreat recognizances entered into before themselves or before courts of summary jurisdiction and returned to them for record or forfeiture, but by the Summary jurisdiction Act 1879 the exercise of the latter power has been rendered unnecessary.

Appellate.—An appeal lies to quarter sessions from convictions by a court of summary jurisdiction only where such an appeal is expressly given by statute. The number of statutes giving such right of appeal is very great. The appellate jurisdiction has been considerably increased by the Summary jurisdiction Act 1879, which allows (s. 19) an appeal (with certain exceptions) from every conviction or order of a court of summary jurisdiction inflicting imprisonment without the option of a line. The appeal may be brought in accordance with the act giving the appeal or the Summary Jurisdiction Acts. Most of the special procedure in statutes giving Que rigfét to appeal has been swept away by the Summary jurisdiction Act 1884.

Civil Jurisdiction, Original.—Originally the county justices were confined to the exercise in or out of sessions of the powers given by the commission of the peace and of certain statutory duties as to rioters, &c. Under the Tudors and Stuarts the justices acting under the supervision of the Privy Council and the court of king's bench gradually became the rulers of the county in administrative and social as well as judicial matters (F. W. Maitland, Justice and Police, 1885, p. 80). The process by which this result was attained is traced in Webb's English Local Government (1907, vol. i.). The effect of the change was the super session by nominees of the crown of the common law authorities and officers of county, hundred and township. But the change extended only to a small extent to municipal boroughs. By legislation in and since 1888 most of the administrative powers and duties of justices in general and quarter sessions have been transferred to the incorporated and elective councils' of counties, boroughs and urban and rural districts. But the justices still possess certain original, civil or quasi-civil jurisdiction with respect to the extinction of licences to sell intoxicants, and jointly with the county councils over the county police, and as to closing highways, and also powers as to fixing the petty sessional divisions of their county.

Appellate.—Theoretically quarter sessions have original jurisdiction in any matter as to which two justices have jurisdiction, unless the statute giving the jurisdiction gives an appeal to quarter sessions as a result of this rule. Most of the civil jurisdiction of quarter sessions is now appellate, 'i.e. with reference to orders made by justices out of quarter sessions as to the settlement and removal of paupers, or under the Highway, Licensing and Bastardy Acts, or as to appeals against assessments or rating. The procedure as to each form of appeal depends partly on the statute by which it is given and partly on the general provisions of the Summary Jurisdiction Acts 1879 and 1884. In substance their only original jurisdiction in civil or quasi-civil matters is now in cases of apprenticeship (5 Eliz. c. 4) and articles of the peace (1 Edw. III. st. 2, c. 16).

Appeal from Quarter Sessions.—There is no appeal properly so called from quarter sessions to the High Court either on facts or law. But decisions on law may be reviewed by the High Court (king's bench division) by means of certiorari, mandamus or prohibition; convictions on indictment before courts of quarter sessions are within the provisions of the Criminal Appeal Act 1907 (see Appeal), except convictions on indictments for obstruction or non»repair of a public bridge, highway or river, from which an appeal lies to the court of appeal in the same way as in the case of civil actions tried at assizes. Quarter sessions have also power to reserve a special case for the High Court on conviction or indictment (Crown Cases Act 1848), and also in other cases to consult the High Court by special case stated under the commission or under the Quarter Sessions Act 1849. Questions of law alone can be referred by special case, and there is no means of compelling the court to state a case. The procedure as to cases not within the acts of 1848, 1849 and 1907 is regulated by the Crown Ofhce Rules of 1906, and s. 2 of the judicature Act 1894, which gives the High Court certain powers of drawing inferences of fact from the evidence taken in the court below.

Scotland.—Justices of the peace were established in Scotland by act of 1587, c. 82, and quarter sessions by act of 1661, c. 338 (I2mo edition, c. 38), which directs that the justices of peace in each respective-shire shall meet and convene together four times in the year, on the first Tuesday of March, May and August, and the last Tuesday of October, to administer justice to the people on things that are within their jurisdiction, and punish the guilty for faults and crimes done and committed in the preceding quarter. The obsolete details in this act were repealed in 1906, but the power of requiring law burrows, i.e. sureties to keep the peace, is preserved. By the Union with Scotland Amendment Act 1707 provision was made for appointing justices of the peace in shires, stewartries and burghs in Scotland: and the justices to be appointed are given authority to exercise whatever doth appertain to the office and court of a justice of peace by virtue of the laws and acts of parliament made in England before the Union in relation to and for the preservation of the public peace. “Provided that in the sessions of the peace the methods of trial and judgments shall be according to the law of Scotland.” The quarter sessions do not sit for the trial of indictments, but have powers of reviewing the decisions of justices in petty sessions (see Summary Jurisdiction). This power extends, inter alia, to revenue cases and cases under the Pawnbrokers Acts. Their jurisdiction as to the grant and refusal of liquor licences was taken away by the Licensing Scotland Act 1903, but they still have appellate jurisdiction as to offences under the Licensing Acts, ss. 101–103. An appeal lies to the Circuit Court of justiciary unless the statute under which they act otherwise provides. In criminal matters their functions are not considerable, most of the work done by justices in England being in Scotland dealt with by the sheriff or his substitutes, or by stipendiaries in the great cities. Their decisions in criminal cases are reviewable by the Court of justiciary and in revenue cases by the court of exchequer. Their original jurisdiction is very limited and almost wholly civil. Thus they have power to divide a county and to make rules for the purposes of the justices of the Peace Small Debts Acts 1825 and 1849.

Ireland.—In Irish municipal boroughs a court of quarter sessions may be granted and a recorder appointed under an act of 1840. In the case of Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Londonderry and Galway, the office of recorder may be united with that of chairman of quarter sessions for the adjoining county. The general criminal jurisdiction of the quarter sessions has the same origin and is on the same lines as in England; but the limitations imposed as to offences which may be tried are not so narrow as in England. The sessions, &c., are regulated in the main by an act of 1851. The appellate jurisdiction rests on different statutes from those applicable to England, but is on the same lines (see 14 & 15 Vict. c. 93; 40 & 41 Vict. c. 56). In Ireland quarter sessions courts are held before a salaried officer once styled the assistant barrister and now chairman, who is usually also judge of a civil bill court (the Irish county court), or recorder of a neighbouring city or borough. The appointment and tenure of office of the chairman is regulated by statutes dating from 1851 to 1889. The jurisdiction of the court is not limited by the Quarter Sessions Act 1842.

India.—In India courts of record were established in Madras and Bombay, originally styled mayors’ courts and subsequently made recorders’ courts, with a jurisdiction corresponding as to criminal matters to that of a borough court of quarter sessions in England. Throughout India there are under the Criminal Procedure Code of 1898 courts of sessions in each province for the purpose of criminal jurisdiction, which take the place of assizes and quarter sessions in England. They are under the supervision of the High Courts; but can try and sentence for any crime, subject as to sentences of death to confirmation by the High Court.

Canada.—In Canada courts of general quarter sessions exist in some provinces, e.g. Quebec. In New Brunswick they are replaced by the county court. Their jurisdiction to try indictable offences is defined by Part 42 of the Criminal Code 1892.

Australia.—In Queensland the place of quarter sessions is taken by the district courts, which have a criminal jurisdiction substantially the same as that of the English court of quarter sessions (31 Vict. No. 30, s. 117). In New South Wales quarter sessions continue. In Victoria a court of general sessions has been created by statute with powers closely resembling those of the English court of quarter sessions (re Dunn, 1906, Victoria State Rep. 493).

United States.—Courts of quarter sessions exist in many of the states; their jurisdiction is determined by state legislation, and extends as a rule only to the less grave crimes. They are in most, if not all, states held before professional judges.  (W. F. C.) 

  1. An earlier statute not repealed (36 Edw. Ill. c. 12) fixes the third and fourth sessions differently, viz. second week of mid-Lent. and between Whit Sunday and Midsummer Day
  2. In the soke of Peterborough commissions of oyer and terminer, and gaol delivery, as well as a commission of the peace, are issued.