The Four Courts

The Benchers of the Honourable Society of King’s Inns was an unincorporated body that dated from 1539.  In 1542, it was granted land of a dissolved monastery to the west of Dublin castle on the north side of the Liffey.

By the late 18th Century, the older courts at Christchurch Lane had become cramped and decrepit.  The government established a number of public offices on the same site.

The Four Courts building adjoined the public offices and was designed by James Gandon, the designer of the Customs House. It was substantially completed in 1796. Further buildings were erected over the following decade. A new law library was constructed in the Four Courts in the late 1830s.

A new law library was constructed in the Four Courts in the late 1830s.  The Four Courts Library Act 1894 was enacted to provide for the use of unclaimed suitors funds towards enlarging and improving the Bar library.  A new library was completed in 1897.

In the absence of Inns as existed in London, the Dublin Bar based itself at the Four Courts, ultimately in the Law Library itself.

Admission to Bar

Statutes passed at the end of the 17th century required that members of the Bar in effect were to be members of the established Church.  These restrictions were lifted at the end of the 18th Century by the Irish Parliament.

Persons seeking to be called to the Bar were obliged to attend one of the Inns of court in London.  This requirement persisted until repealed in 1885.

A statute of 1782 required a person to obtain the degree of barrister at law.  He must be registered as a student with King’s Inns for 5 years.  Certain graduates of colleges required a 3-year period only.

From 1789, candidates for the Bar were to be sponsored. A more detailed memorandum of their background was required.

Amended Charter

An amended charter of 1792 strengthened the Bar’s structure providing for a scale of fees by students, barristers, benchers and attorneys.  It gave the Society power to promote the study of law and maintain good order and practise amongst practitioners.

The Honourable Society of King’s Inns was incorporated under the charter and managed by its Benchers.  The charter was confirmed by an Act of the Irish parliament in the same year.  The Catholic relief bill was passed the same year, although restrictions still applied to the position of Kings Counsel.

The newly reconstituted chartered society published rules governing the profession in the same year. The relevant rules were not accepted, and the charter was repealed by parliament.  The Society became an unincorporated association again.

1793 Rules

In 1793, the Benchers settled new rules which were approved.  The Benchers declared that they had full authority to make rules and orders concerning the business and practise of law.

The committee of Benchers declared their objective to make and ordain rules for the business and practise of attorneys and for their admission to the society and for the admission of students, for and concerning their being admitted into the said society and for ranks and degrees therein, and for the advancement of knowledge and science and practise of law.

The rules required that every barrister, solicitor and student be a member of the Society and pay fees. The rules derived their status and forced the fact that the judges were Benchers.

In the 1830s the Law Society decided that the rules had no legal basis in so far as they regulated the training of solicitors and their apprentices.

Kings Inns

The King’s Inns premises at Henrietta Street was acquired in 1798. The premises at King’s Inns, which was also designed by Gandon, took almost 20 years to complete. The King’s Inns maintained its law library facilities and its dining hall, in which entrants were required to dine.

The Copyright Act 1801 made King’s Inn a copyright library with an entitlement to every book published in the United Kingdom.  This right ceased in 1836 and an annual grant for books was made instead.

The Benchers of the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns were its governing body prior to its reorganisation mentioned above.  They were self-elected comprising the Lord Chancellor, superior court judges, senior officers including masters, and senior members of the bar including the Attorney General, Solicitor General and 3 sergeants.

Solicitors were required to be members of the Inn up until 1866.  See separately in relation to solicitors’ history.

The involvement of the judges as Benchers contrasted with the position in England, by which a Bencher retired upon becoming a judge.  A person was required to have been a barrister for at least 8 years to be elected a Bencher.


The preamble to the 1792 rules provided that the Benchers were responsible for the knowledge and integrity of those who were permitted to profess and practise the science and business of law. A person should not be admitted to the Society of King’s Inns or to continue unless he was a proper and capable person.

A student on admission could commence studies at King’s Inns, or with an Inns of court in London for the requisite times.  Following reforms in the middle of the 19th Century, this discretion on the part of the student changed.

The students who attended the requisite number of terms in Dublin and London, and after the middle of the 19th Century, had attended the necessary lectures and passed the examinations could submit a memorial to the Benchers, requesting that they be admitted.

A person must be approved by the Benchers before being called to the Bar. The Barrister’s Admission Ireland Act abolished the former requirement to keep terms at the Inns of court in London.

At the turn of the 20th Century, arrangements were put in place between the King’s Inns and the Inns of courts in London for the admission of each as a barrister to the other Bar without keeping the necessary terms or examinations.  A barrister of 2 years standing, upon presenting his certificate to the Irish Attorney General that he was fit and proper, was entitled to be admitted to the other bar.


The Benchers retained the power of discipline over barristers.  They might be censured or ultimately disbarred for misconduct.  Procedures for discipline varied.

In the most serious cases, a committee was appointed to enquire into the matter. Disbarring occurred in practice, only in the cases of serious crimes.

The home Bar resolved in the middle of the 19th Century, that no senior counsel (Queens Counsel) should act in a civil appeal matter unless a junior counsel was also appointed.  In 1864 the Irish Bar resolved that no senior council should sign pleadings unless junior counsel also signed them.

Through the 19th century, barristers were not permitted to engage in other business, particularly of a commercial nature.  This rule was relaxed at the beginning of the 20th Century.


Barristers have always practised either in the Four Courts and /or on circuits.  There are a number of regional Bars, associated with each of the Circuits.

The High Court sat (and continues to sit) in various regional towns twice a year.  Generally, 2 High Court (earlier superior court) judges sat in provincial towns in so-called assizes.

The Country Court of each Circuit sat in the principal towns, four times a year.  Appeals from the County Court judge were to the High Court judge at assizes. Each Circuit lasted between 3 to 6 weeks.  It was not generally necessary to be a member of the Circuit Bar to appear at the County Court.  A special fee might be payable, for a non-member to appear at the assizes.

Circuit Bars

The Circuit Bars were voluntary associations.  The Circuits were divided at the start of the 19th Century, including Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Northeast and Northwest and home circuits.  The home circuit was absorbed into adjoining circuits in the later part of the 19th Century.

Barristers rarely changed from one circuit to the other.  They would generally build up relationships with solicitors on the particular circuit.  In the middle of the 19th Century, some of the Bars sought the right to veto barristers of other circuits joining.

Barristers on circuits travelled from one circuit town to the other, staying in hotels or other accommodation.  Barristers would not associate too closely with judges other than at the latter’s invitation.  Judges had a formal dinner with each circuit Bar.  Similarly, Barristers were expected not to associate too closely with solicitors so that they would not be unduly favoured in terms of briefs.

Each Circuit adopted its own rules, broadly following the rules of the General Bar.  Subscriptions were payable to the Circuit Bar.

Circuit Bars could regulate dress in court and professional practice generally.  Wigs and gowns were not commonly worn until the middle of the 19th Century, notwithstanding the Benchers requirements from the early 18th Century. The Bar rules regulated fees and retainers payable.

The Bar Council

In the early part of the 19th Century, the judges who were ex-officio members of the Bar Council dropped numerically and there was a demand for more practising Barristers to be appointed.  In 1870 it was resolved that there be at least 20 practising Barristers as Benchers.  There should be 46 members, 17 ex-officio and 29 elected.

All elected members were to be practising members of the Bar, of whom at least 4 would be members of the outer Bar.  In 1872 the Benchers resolved that at least half of the Benchers should be practising members of the Bar, and each ex-officio Bencher other than the Lord Chancellor should cease to be a Bencher on leaving office.  They might continue as honorary Benchers.  Over time the Benchers became more representative of the Barristers profession.

Reorganisation of Bar Council

A General Council of the Bar was established in 1897.  It was to be representative of the Bar and deal with all matters affecting the profession, taking such action as may be expedient.  Its members were to be members of the library committee and such Barristers as the Bar Council may deem expedient to co-opt.

It was reconstituted in 1907, and its rules were expanded.  It must consist of the Attorney General and Solicitor’s General, 7 members of the Bar, 10 practising barristers elected by the Circuits and 5 co-opted members.  The 7 members were elected by the general meeting.

The functions of the Council were to be the accredited representatives of the Bar and to deal with all matters affecting the profession,  the conduct and arrangement of the business of the profession, etiquette and professional practice, the relationship of the inner and outer Bar, the relationship of Bar and Bench, the right of audience.

The Bar published rules on various matters of professional conduct and etiquette.  A schedule of minimum fees was adopted in 1920. The Council convened an AGM at which reports, and accounts were to be rendered. It could summons a meeting on the requisition of 20 members.


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