Position on Union

Upon the  commencement of the Union in 1801, the superior (higher) courts in Ireland comprised the Chancery Court, the Prerogative Court which dealt with testamentary matters, the Admiralty Court and three Common Law Courts, the King’s Bench, the Common Pleas and Exchequer.

There was an appeal from the Chancery and Common Law Courts to the Court of the Exchequer Chamber.  There was then an appeal to the House of Lords in London.  The House of Lords was the final court notwithstanding that its judges were not necessarily expert in Irish Law.  However, Irish law was in practice very similar to England and Wales’ law and there was generally at least to one Irish Law Lord.

The principal judges of the Chancery Division were the Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Roll.  The Lord Chief Justices were principal judges of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas and the Chief Baron was the principal judge of the Exchequer division.  Judges were appointed for life by the Crown, and held office, subject only to the possibility of being impeached by parliament for serious misbehaviour.

The Court of Appeal in Chancery comprised the Lord Chancellor and Lord Justice of the Court of the Appeal in chancery together with a common law judge  which the Lord Chancellor might requisition.  This court heard appeals from the Chancery Division and the Landed Estates Court.

Some Mid-Century Reforms

Prior to 1857, bankruptcy matters were dealt with by a court of commissioners.  The Court of Bankruptcy and Insolvency was established in 1857 with an appeal to Chancery.  In 1872, it became the Bankruptcy Court.

A special court was set up to deal with the large number of over-mortgaged incumbered estates.  The Encumbered Estates Court consisted of commissioners including a Baron of the Exchequer.  It eventually became the Landed Estates Court.

The ecclesiastical courts dealt with testamentary matrimonial, tithe, ecclesiastical and related matters.  The judges were appointed by the bishop for life. The jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was abolished by the Irish Church Act 1870.

The Court of Probate was established in 1857 and succeeded the former jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in relation to probate matters.  Prior to this, the Prerogative Court deals with probate and related matters and was appointed by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh.  Prior to 1870, and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the ecclesiastical court exercised jurisdiction in matrimonial matters.  This was transferred to a matrimonial court in 1870.

1877 Reorganisation

A  radical reorganisation of the courts took place in 1877 on the enactment of the Supreme Court Judicature (Ireland) Act.  This modelled a similar organisation in England and Wales which took place in 1873.

The existing courts including the Chancery Queen’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, Probate, Matrimonial, Landed Estates’ Court and Admiralty emerged into a single Supreme Court which would administer law and equity concurrently.

There were two divisions, the High Court which dealt with cases in the first instance and a Court of Appeal.  The appeal division comprised Lord Chancellor, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, Chief justice of the Common Pleas, Chief Baron of the Exchequer and two Lords Justice of Appeal.

The High Court consisted of the members of the Supreme Court except the Lord Justice of Appeal.  Therefore, former chief judges in the relevant divisions prior to the amalgamation  could sit both as High Court judges and Appeal Court Judges.

The High Court itself was divided into a number of divisions reflecting the older courts, namely the Chancery Division, Common Pleas, Exchequer, Queen’s Bench, Probate and Matrimony.  Ultimately, by further reforms later in the 19th Century, all the courts except Chancery were fused with the Queen’s Bench Division which resulted in the High Court  comprise a Chancery and Queen’s Bench/King’s Bench division.

By the 20th century, the Superior Courts comprise judges of the High Court Chancery Division or Queen’s Bench Division and the two Lords Justices of Appeal. The Land Acts necessitated the creation of a special court comprising Judicial Commissioners who ranked as High Court judges.

Local Courts

The main  judges dealing with the local matters were the unpaid Justice of the Peace.  It dealt largely with summary criminal matters.  They were generally gentleman amateurs. After 1827, the Petty Sessions Act provided for session of at least two Justice of the Peace sitting together with a clerk.

Due to the disturbed conditions in Ireland through much with 19th century, provision was made for the appointment of Resident Magistrates who were full-time judges exercising the powers of Justice of the Peace.

At the end of the 18th century, barristers were appointed as assistants to justices at Quarter Sessions by way of professionalization of the judiciary.  Their status was that of a paid judge and their role evolved into that of the Civil Bill  judge hearing civil matters where the claim was below a certain amount.

The assistant barrister’s title was changed in the middle of the century to Chairman of the Quarter Session and later to Country Court judge.  This role evolved directly into that of Circuit Court judge upon establishment of the Irish Free State.

There are also numerous local courts, set up under the charters establishing cities, boroughs and manors.  In Dublin there was a Court of Quarter Sessions, a Lord Mayor’s Court, a Mayor and Sheriff’s Court, and a Court of Conscience. The Mayor and Sheriff’s Court dealt with personal actions and the Court of Conscience dealt with small claims.

In boroughs there were  courts presided over by the Head of the Corporation.  They generally concerned summary collection of debts. The Lord Mayor’s Court dealt with summary minor offences and minor disputes.  The Lord Mayor’s Court consisted of the Lord Mayor Recorder and senior aldermen.

The Court of Quarter Sessions dealt with serious crime.  Serious offenses could be tried at Commissions, Quarter Sessions or before a Commission court consisting of High Court judges.Solicitors were appointed for each county to conduct prosecutions at Quarter Sessions, and occasionally at Petty Sessions.  Most Petty Sessions prosecutions were undertaken directly by the police.

Manorial and Local Courts

The manor courts exercised significant jurisdiction in civil matters.  These courts had a longstanding jurisdiction and were slowly regulated in order to make them more professional.  Seneschals was the term for judges of the courts.  Legislation obliged them to  keep records and enter into bonds for the proper performance of their function.

By the middle of the 19th century, there were over 200 such courts distributed to the country.  They provided relatively cheap access to justice. Many heard  cases through Irish.

Ultimately, many of the local courts were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act 1840 which rationalised many outdated corporations and entities.  The principal cities retained their Recorders Courts and courts could be established in boroughs by  petition.  The last manor courts were  abolished in 1859.

Court Offices

In the mid-19th century, the offices attaching to the superior courts were reformed.  There was attached to each common law court, a Master and a range of assistants and clerks. Fees were rationalised and made consistent.

On the Chancery side, there were a number of Masters conducting quasi-judicial work. Similarly, the appointment of Masters in Chancery were formalised and paid a salary in lieu of the former practice of connecting fees.

In 1867, the Chancery Ireland Act provided for a updated structure with various divisions of clerks being appointed by the Lord Chancellor and in the case of lower grades by Civil Service Commissioner recommendation.

The Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1877  further rationalised the court offices and officers.  The major offices attached to courts were appointed by the senior judges of the court, with lower positions being filled by competition.

The Clerk of the Crown was responsible for the functioning of and records kept by the Assize Court.  The clerk of the peace performed functions at Quarter Sessions and was also the principal officer in the Civil Bill Court.

The County Officers and Courts (Ireland) Act, 1877 merged the clerks of the crown and clerks of the peace. Registrars could be appointed by the chairman of the Civil Bill court. The Petty Sessions clerks were made salaried officials in the mid-19th century.


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