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A Brief History of the Quarter Sessions

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. There are few surviving records for Bedfordshire before 1714, which is quite a late date compared to some other counties, for example those for Staffordshire date from 1590, and Warwickshire 1625.

From the 17th century onwards the powers of the Justices of the Peace at Quarter Sessions, especially in administrative matters, increased. The court tried criminal cases that could not be dealt with summarily but that were not punishable by death. In addition to its role in criminal justice, quarter sessions had a variety of other responsibilities. For example: 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.

The duties of the court changed throughout the nineteenth century, for example: due to changes to the Poor Law in 1834, the prison system in 1878, and the creation of the County Council in 1889. By 1900 the court was almost solely a part of the criminal justice system.

The Quarter Sessions continued to exercise its important role in criminal justice, until superseded under the Crown Courts Act 1970, which transferred their powers to the newly created Crown Courts in the following year. Prior to their abolition in 1971, quarter sessions courts came to have jurisdiction to hear and determine most of the indictable cases in England and Wales. They became situated between magistrates’ courts below and assize courts above. When sitting with a jury, a quarter sessions court had a wide criminal jurisdiction and could hear civil and criminal cases on appeal from a magistrates’ court.