The Common law system remained largely as it was at the start of the 14th century. By the middle of the 16th century, it had been brought more in line with that in England. There were two judges on each of the benches and three exchequer barons.
Additional puisne judges were appointed from time to time. The Master of the Rolls was established as a judicial office by the 1530s. There was a King’s attorney, a King’s Sergeant-at-Law and Solicitors General. They were paid modestly and were dependent on fees from litigants.
The royal courts in Ireland followed the English structure. In civil cases the plaintiff purchased as writ from Chancery and secured the appearance of the defendant. In criminal cases, an indictment before the grand jury led to arrest or outlawry for non-appearance.
The English courts retained jurisdiction over Irish courts even after Ireland became a separate kingdom in 1541. in practice, Irish court cases before the English courts were occasional.
By the end of the Tudor area in the early 17th century, there existed the Courts of King’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer and the Chancery in Ireland.
The King’s Bench was responsible for criminal matters but might delegate powers by commission of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery.
The Exchequer exercised power in the enforcement of royal rights and penal statutes. It proceeded by Inquisition. It also appointed special commissioners. Legal procedures were extremely slow and inefficient. The Irish Court of Exchequer exercised equity jurisdiction, with the Irish Chancery Court only later emerging.
The Irish Chancery developed as a court in the late 15th century only. It grew in the early 16th century. Increasingly, Chancery supplemented common law and took on the same role as in England, as a counterbalance to the inflexibilities and rigidities of the common law.
The Privy Council established in 1520 dealt with both judicial and administrative matters. It had a significant role in land disputes. It intervened in particular in disputes between magnates or prominent persons which threatened a breach of the peace. The Chancery Court also adjudicated on common law cases.
The Chancery Court grew in significance in the 16th century and it assumed more extensive equitable jurisdiction. This was assisted by the difficulty of the operation of common law which required juries in many cases, which were difficult to operate effectively in many parts of Ireland. This gave Chancery an expanded role.
Court of Castle Chamber
The Privy Council itself, effectively the government, had a significant judicial function. Due to practical and political difficulties, the Council became overburdened.
A new Court of Castle Chamber was appointed in 1563. It remained subordinate to the Council. It was revived in 1571. Its procedures were similar to that of Star Chamber in England and was perceived to be a tool of the government.
It sat twice a week in term, with members comprising the Governor, Chancellor, Treasurer, Chief Justices, Chief Baron, Master of the Roles, and others. It was distinct from the Privy Council, although there was a substantial identity of members.
The Court of Castle Chamber had jurisdiction over certain public/ political criminal laws such as riots and unlawful assembly. It also dealt with failures of performance by Sheriffs of their duties in the shires, sedition, extortion of public officials and public offences generally.
The court dealt with public order matters, particularly amongst persons of high standing. It dealt with matters arising from other courts, including enforcement and corrections of errors on the part of judicial officials and punishing breach of duty.
Provincial Councils and Courts
Within the Ormond’s Earldom there continued to exist the Court of Tipperary palatine. This was a liberty jurisdiction dating back to the early Middle Ages. It exercised jurisdiction in equity and common law cases except the pleas of the of the crown, as in medieval times. It could be reviewed only by writs of error in the Irish King’s Bench; effectively a limited judicial review type intervention only.
The Palatines under the control of magnates effectively extended government control using local resources. The Palatines varied in their autonomy. The County Palatine court in Tipperary and St. Sepulchre survived until the 18th century. Certain felonies were reserved for the Crown. The King’s courts had jurisdiction in cases of patent error. They were represented in parliament and subject to taxation.
In the Elizabethan era special Conciliar Courts exercised effective martial law hearing civil, criminal and ecclesiastical cases in those areas. This represented an assertion of crown authority against the local Anglo-Irish and Gaelic magnets.
In the latter half of the 16th century, provincial councils were established following rebellions. Presidencies were established in Munster and Connacht. There was a president, chief and second justice and Clerk of the Council. The councils included the bishops and lay magnates of each province.
They had power to hear bills of complaint by subjects within their jurisdiction. They received commissions to try criminal felonies and misdemeanour. Those deprived of justice could petition the King either directly or through the Irish Council.
In the conciliar courts the plaintiff exhibited a bill of complaint and issued a writ subpoena for the defendant’s appearance without specifying cause. The case continued by pleadings, examination of witnesses, judgment and decree. Enforcement of decrees was by fines and imprisonment.
Circuit and Local Courts
Royal annual general commissions were held in liberties and shires. They were staffed by justices from the benches and local magnates, sometimes presided over by the governor. The commissions could review all local courts, including those in the autonomous Palatines and franchise courts.
Cases which might otherwise have come before the central court were heard by itinerant commissioners Disputes and claims in the Pale came before the central court.
Many cases were dealt with through local manorial courts, county courts and sheriff’s turns.
The Irish keepers of the peace equivalent to the JPs in England remained principally military and organized local defence. Peace commissions were relatively small and aristocratic in nature. They typically inquired into treasons, felonies and trespasses.
The often disturbed conditions meant that justices did not always travel on circuit. Resident commissioners were appointed in provincial centres such as Kilkenny and Waterford.
The sheriff maintained a significant local role. The sheriff had a military, judicial and administrative functions. He organized the county posse in relation to roads and defence. He organized a County levy.
He continued as a judge to hold tourns twice a year in each county barony to hear lesser crimes. He presided over the county court, hearing minor civil matters.
The sheriff levied Crown revenues, proclaimed statutes, served writs and ordinances and proclamations in the county court. In the 16th century the military element increased as martial law and coercion became regular features.
Lawyers and Judges
Henry VIII established the Kings Inns in a confiscated monastery on the South side of the Liffey. It did not have powers to confer degrees. A statute passed in 1542 required barristers practising law to reside at least three years in an English Inns of Court. Through the 16th century, statutes attempting to make requirements that lawyers and judges who profess the established church, failed due to determined resistance from the remaining Anglo-Irish magnets.
The participation of lawyers and judicial officers in revolts in Munster at the end of the nine year’s war hardened the criticisms that the legal profession and members of the Bench as officers of the King should be bound to an oath of supremacy of the King. At the same time, the Bench was almost entirely purged of Anglo-Irish judges and replaced by English judges.
Manoeuvres were undertaken to force existing judges to resign or be moved and to increase the number of English judges. By 1613, the total Irish judges was thirteen y which time only two were native-born. Judges had been practising members of the English Bar and by 1613 all including the native judges were Protestants.