The Courts

The major courts in the 18th century were the Chancery, Kings Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer and Prerogative Court.  There was an appeal from the Prerogative Court to the Court of Delegates in Chancery.

There was a County Palatine court in Tipperary in the Ormond Palatine.  This ceased when the Duke was attainted.

There was a Court of Admiralty which was subordinate to the English Court of Admiralty.

The common law courts, the King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer, each had a Chief Justice and two other judges.

The Chancery judges comprised the Chancellor, Master of the Rolls and judges in the prerogative court. The Courts of Chancery was presided over by the Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Rolls. A Chief Justice and ordinary judges presided over the King’s Bench and Court of Common Pleas. The Chief Baron and second and third Barons sat in the Court of Exchequer.

There was an appeal from the Superior Courts to the Court of Exchequer Chamber, which consisted of the Lord Chancellor High Treasurer and Vice Treasurer and the Chief Justices of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas. There was a separate appeal from the Prerogative Court.

The Ecclesiastical Courts dealt with matrimonial, testamentary and ecclesiastical matters.  There were 25 courts.  There was a Consistory Court for each diocese of the established church.  It was presided over by a vicar general.

Until 1782 Irish judges held office at the King’s pleasure.  Ultimately the judges were granted security of tenure by an Act of the Irish Parliament in 1782.

In addition to the four principals courts in Dublin, local court were spread through the country.  In Dublin, there was a Quarter Sessions Courts presided over by a recorder dealing with criminal matters.

The Lord Mayors court exercised jurisdiction in relation to minor offences.  The Mayors and Sheriffs court dealt with personal action.  The Court of Conscience dealt with disputes less than 40 shillings of the value.


There were five circuits, each requiring two judges on which the judges conducted assizes. The common law judges on circuit triesd major civil and criminal cases in the large assize towns. Cases were first before the County Grand Jury.

Due to a shortage of judges, senior law officers such as the prime sergeant, solicitor General, Attorney General and Senior King’s Counsel acted as assize judges.

Appeals in serious cases came before the judges of the central courts at assize.  They went on circuit twice a year holding assize courts in County towns.  The High Sheriff empanelled a jury of 23 Justice of the Peace.

The grand jury dealt with indictment.  It effectively determined the works of judges. At the conclusion of the assize, the grand jury was disbanded.

The petty jury was the trial jury.  It was a local jury and often knew details of the case.  It might know the defendant and might speak Irish.  Legislation required cases to be heard in English.

In practice, without a modern police force the number of convictions was relatively low.

Quarter Sessions

Most cases were tried by Justices of the Peace in courts of petty session.  More serious cases were tried in the assizes presided over by judges on circuit from the central courts.  The centre of county administration was the county town. The grand jury and court of sessions met in the county town.  The assize judges on circuit from the central courts held  their courts there.

The Courts of Quarter Sessions were conducted by the Justices of the Peace. They might be the mayors or chief officers of large towns. Justices were unpaid and untrained in law. They had a wide range of responsibilities. Four times a year, they acted collectively at quarter sessions.

In 1796 the Lord Lieutenant was given power to appoint an assistant barrister to assist the judges in Quarter Sessions.  He was given civil jurisdiction.  This was in effect, the origin of the County and later Circuit Court.  At the Quarter Sessions, the assistant barrister guided the Justices of the Peace on the law.

Petty Sessions

Justices of the Peace sat alone or at Quarter Sessions and were vested with a wide range of functions, in relation both to justice, in particular criminal justice and administration.

The court of petty sessions was presided over by a Justice of the Peace heard minor criminal cases.  More serious cases were referred to the Court of Quarter Sessions which tried felonies.

Justices of the Peace were generally members of the local gentry appointed as an honour,  unpaid. They may or may not have legal training.

By the Act of Union, there were almost 3,000 Justicesof the Peace.  They were unpaid and they were principle with summary criminal matters. They were typically country gentlemen.

The Lord Lieutenant was empowered at the end of the 18th century to appoint a barrister of six year standing to assist the judges at quarter sessions.  He was also given limited civil jurisdiction.  Accordingly, the justices would be guided by a professional lawyer.


Each county had a high sheriff appointed annually by the Lord Lieutenant on the advice of local dignitaries. The high sheriff empanelled grand juries twice yearly from amongst gentlemen of standing within the county. It sat for a few days of the assizes and was discharged by the judge.

The sheriff represented the executive in both civil and criminal matters.  The appointments were annual and were usually made from leading families in the county.

He presided over elections.  He commonly delegated his executive duties such as in relation to prisoners to deputies.  Sheriffs and sub-sheriffs took an oath.

Numerous acts were passed to control and limit sheriff’s activities.  The office was commonly a burden and gentlemen had to be incentivized to take it.

Convicted convicts were commonly transported.  The sheriff arranged for transportation.

1782 Reform

Until 1720, there was an appeal from the Irish courts to the Irish House of Lords. This appeal did not exist between 1720 and 1782. During this time, the final appeal was to the English House of Lords.

The House of Lords remained the final court of appeal until 1783, when the appellate jurisdiction of the Irish House of Lords was re-established. This was affirmed by the Declaratory Act 1719 and ultimately removed by the Renunciation Act 1783, each acts of the English Parliament.

The House of Lords was restored its jurisdiction as an appeal body in 1782. In  the same year, it was finally enacted that judges would hold office during good behaviour, thereby giving them the same security of tenure as in England.

The number of judges was increased by adding a judge to each of the Kings Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer. Each court had an office and administrative staff.  It issued summons and writs, filed  affidavits produced orders and enforced judgments etc.

Judges & Court Offices

Certain offices such as the Chancellor, Speaker of the House of Commons, Prime Sergeant, Attorney General, Solicitor General, Vice Treasurer and Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant played important roles, which covered both the legal and political. The chief judges were members of the Privy Council and were involved in legal affairs in this capacity

The principal judges and law officers were almost invariably English. Judges were appointed by the King on nomination of the Lord Lieutenant. The principal law officer was the Lord Chancellor.  His salary was dependent on fees, including fees for issue of writs and parliamentary duties.  Below the Chancellor were the chief justices of each of the courts, with ordinary judges receiving salaries.

Each of the courts had its own staff, which administered the machinery of the courts including the issue of writs and summons, taking affidavits, producing copies of  judgment and taking costs.  Officials charged fees at each stage of the procedure.

Legal Profession

There are over almost a thousand attorneys and proctors in Dublin in the 18th century.  Proctors practiced in the Ecclesiastical Courts.  Most Irish litigation arose from landed estates. A feature of late-18th and early-19th century in Ireland is the lack of law reports.

The Irish bar was separate to the English bar. No person could practice before the Irish bar without being called separately. The courts moved to their present location at the Four Courts on Inns Quay in 1796.

Many leading barristers were successful politicians.  Many judges were ex-members of parliament.  The Attorney Generals, Solicitor General and Prime Sergeant were usually politicians.

There  were clerks in each court who acted as agents for attorneys in conducting litigation.  Fees were payable for many of the duties concerned

Local Courts

There were numerous local courts.  Major towns had their own courts presided over by a Recorder, Alderman or Mayor. Many local courts existed under royal grants.

In Dublin there were a Lord Mayor’s court exercising summary jurisdiction on minor offenses, a Mayor and Sheriff’s Court dealing with personal actions, a Court of Conscience dealing with matters less than 20 shillings and Quarter Sessions Court presided by a Recorder.

Some manor courts retained with rights to hold courts. Some franchise jurisdictions remained which allowed the landlord to hold a court to try minor criminal cases within the manor.  They had jurisdiction to collect small debts.  The Seneschals presided over the courts with little legal training.

The manor courts were finally abolished in 1859.  At that stage there were almost 200 in operation.  Many such courts heard cases with juries.

The court baron heard civil matters matter below 40 shillings.  Other franchise courts of records were less common but might be granted and some had  jurisdiction up to a hundred pounds.

Each of the major cities had a Quarter Sessions Court, a Mayor Court, a Court of Conscience and Sheriffs Court.  Other major towns had variants.

About 50 boroughs had courts of limited jurisdiction which were presided over by the head of the corporation.  They dealt largely with the collection of debts.  Over the 18th century many of these ceased to function in smaller boroughs.


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