The courts of quarter sessions or quarter sessions were local courts traditionally held at four set times each year in the Kingdom of England (including Wales) from 1388 until 1707, then in 18th-century Great Britain, in the later United Kingdom, and in other dominions of the British Empire.
Quarter sessions generally sat in the seat of each county and county borough. They were abolished in England and Wales in 1972, when the Courts Act 1971 replaced them and the assizes with a single permanent Crown Court. In Scotland they survived until 1975, when they were abolished and replaced by district courts and later by justice of the peace courts.
Bentley notes in English Criminal Justice in the Nineteenth Century that "the reputation of such courts remained consistently bad throughout the century" due to failure by chairmen to take proper note of evidence, display of open bias against prisoners, and the severity of sentences compared to the assizes. Chairmen of county sessions did not have to be legally qualified.
The quarter sessions generally heard crimes that could not be tried summarily by the justices of the peace without a jury in petty sessions, which were sent up by the process of indictment to be heard in quarter sessions.
The quarter sessions did not have jurisdiction to hear the most serious crimes, most notably those subject to capital punishment or later life imprisonment. These crimes were sent for trial at the periodic assizes.
The quarter sessions in each county were made up of two or more justices of the peace, presided over by a chairman, who sat with a jury. County boroughs entitled to their own quarter sessions had a single recorder instead of a bench of justices.
Every court of quarter sessions had a clerk called the clerk of the peace. For county quarter sessions, this person was appointed by the custos rotulorum of the county – the justice of the peace for the county charged with custody of its rolls and records. There was a large fee income for the clerk, and he was usually a friend or relative of the custos. The clerk rarely discharged the duties of the office himself, but appointed a solicitor to act as his deputy in return for a share of the fees. After 1852, payment by salary was gradually brought in instead of fees.
In some counties there were multiple quarter sessions, quite apart from the urban areas: for example, Yorkshire had its North Riding, West Riding, and East Riding; whilst Northamptonshire's Soke of Peterborough was administered separately. These divisions were carried on to the administrative counties that county councils covered.
The quarter sessions also had some limited civil jurisdiction, and until the Local Government Act 1888 created elected county councils, also had important administrative functions in their respective counties.
Much of the court's administrative business was delegated to committees of magistrates, who had specific responsibilities. Most of these administrative functions were transferred to county councils when they were established in 1888.
These functions included:
- Repair of roads and bridges
- Highway diversions
- Construction and maintenance of county buildings
- Administration of the county gaol (jails)
- Supervision of public and private lunatic asylums
- Supervision of petty sessions
- Licensing of public houses
- Supervision of the English Poor Laws (pre-1834)
- The county militia
- The police
- Setting county rates
The following quarter sessions were abolished by the Justices of the Peace Act 1949 on 1 October 1951.
- Liberty of Ripon
- Saffron Walden
- South Molton
It also saw a separate quarter sessions set up for the Isle of Wight.
Quarter sessions were established in Scotland by an Act of the Parliament of Scotland in 1661 (cap. 38), which directed justices of the peace to meet together in each county on the first Tuesday of March, May and August, and the last Tuesday of October. Often Quarter Sessions were delayed, in which case they met as General Sessions. Quarter Sessions were abolished alongside other local courts by the District Courts (Scotland) Act 1975, which moved justices of the peace to sitting in a uniform series of district courts, since replaced by justice of the peace courts.
Quarter session courts in Ireland
The Dublin Quarter Sessions Court had cognizance of all crimes committed within the city's boundaries except treason. There were quarter sessions courts elsewhere in Ireland in Cork, Limerick, Derry, Kilkenny, Waterford, Galway, Carrickfergus, Kinsale, and Youghal. The recorder of the court sat alone. The Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act 1840 abolished many city and borough courts, but Dublin, Galway and Carrickfergus retained their courts of quarter sessions.
In 1867, the Attorney-General for Ireland, Hedges Eyre Chatterton, issued guidelines to regulate which cases ought to be tried at tried at assizes rather than quarter sessions: treason, murder, treason felony, rape, perjury, assault with intent to murder, party processions, election riots, and all offences of a political or insurrectionary character.
Quarter Sessions were abolished in the Irish Free State under the Courts of Justice Act 1924. Their jurisdiction (together with that of the assizes and the county courts) was largely transferred to the Circuit Court.
Courts of quarter sessions of the peace of Lower Canada
The courts of quarter sessions of the peace was created in August 1764 and headed by a chairman in each district. In Montreal the Governor of Montreal was replace with the Court of Quarter Sessions Chairman.
List of quarter session courts in Lower Canada from 1763 to 1790:
- Montreal District
- Quebec District
- Trois-Rivières District
In 1791 27 districts were created to replace the role of the three founding districts. In 1832 when Montreal was incorporated as a city the role of the Mayor of Montreal replaced the quarter sessions chairman and that of the court by Montreal City Council.
Courts of quarter sessions in Upper Canada
A Court of Quarter Sessions was held four times a year in each district to oversee the administration of the district and deal with legal cases in the Province of Upper Canada (later Province of Canada West after 1841). It was created in 1788 and remained in effect until 1849 when local governments and courts were assigned to county governments to replace the district system created in the 1780s.
List of Quarter Session courts in Upper Canada and later in Canada West:
- Lunenburgh District 1788–1792 – sat at New Johnstown (present day Cornwall, Ontario)
- Mecklenburg Distrcit 1788–1792 – sat at Kingston (now Kingston, Ontario)
- Nassau District 1788–1792 – sat at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and later at York, Upper Canada (later Toronto)
- Hesse District 1788–1792 – sat at Sandwich (now Windsor, Ontario)
Other colonial administrations
Quarter Sessions were also held in the colony of New South Wales. They also existed in North American colonies, sometimes known as Courts of General Sessions, and were held in Pennsylvania until the constitution of that Commonwealth was rewritten in 1968 and the courts' jurisdiction was placed under the pre-existing Courts of Common Pleas in each county, and in New York until a similar reform. In India and Malaysia, the quarter sessions have evolved into permanent sessions courts.
- Sir John Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (3rd edition, 1990 Butterworths, ISBN 0-406-53101-3) p. 30. The Translation of St Thomas falls on 3 July.
- Court of Quarter Sessions
- Guide to justice records - The National Archives of Scotland
- McEldowney, John F.; O'Higgins, Paul (1990). The common law tradition: essays in Irish legal history. Irish Academic Press. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-7165-2397-0.
- The Courts of Justice Act, 1924, Section 51