In the early days of the Norman colony, the Justiciar’s court was the sole central court. Over time, the bulk of judicial came to be undertaken by county courts. Sometimes the Justiciar presided over county courts. The references to the King’s Courts in Ireland refer to courts held before the Justiciar.
initially, justices were appointed from time to time in some cases to deal only with a single case. It appears that the appointment of a specialised standing judiciary in Ireland is referable to King John’s visit in 1210. Itinerant justices held eyres through the country in the same manner as in England.
In the early 14th century, the general eyre to hold all pleas faded out. By the latter half of the 13th century, the judges had become professionals. Between eyres, the judges sat in Dublin sitting as the King’s justices in the bench in Dublin. The sessions may have been suspended when they went on elsewhere. Towards the end of the 13th century, a permanent bench was established in Dublin
Eyres took place outside Dublin. An Eyre was a session held at a provincial location. The Eyre conducted both administrative, governmental and judicial business.
Commissions were issued for each Eyre. The justiciar could preside in the Eyre. Eyres were held around the county and in Dublin. A chief justice in Eyre was appointed.
Sessions were held in the main provincial towns in Munster and Leinster. The writ of summons set out the jurisdiction of the justiciar’s court. It ordered the sheriff to
- to cause to come before the justiciar assizes of novel deseisin or morte d’ancestor before the justices of the county.
- proclaim that all who wished to complain of the king’s ministers or others should prosecute their complaints
- proclaim that all who had a matter before the justiciar at his next coming should be present
He was to arrange prisoners and their accusers attend in relation to certain serious criminal matters. He was to have 24 knights and other free lawful men to certify the justiciar on articles touching the king’s peace.
The above was the writ of summons to the general eyre in Ireland. Part of the writ might be modified in circumstances by omitting some of the above elements. It might deal with civil business only. The justiciar could delegate the task of taking an assize or inquisition, where he could not conveniently attend. He could remit and assize to justices from whom it had come.
The itinerant justices were also contemplated by ordnance at the beginning of the 13th century. This consisted of one judge sitting alone, and later three judges. The number of itinerant judges increased to five by the middle of the 13th century. They either sat in Dublin to hear common pleas or travelled as itinerant justices.
When based in Dublin they were termed the common bench and ultimately the court of common pleas in parallel to the English equivalent. At the end of the 13th century the first chief justice of the common pleas was appointed.
Procedure by Bills
Certain complaints could only be by writ including those relating to the freehold. Most litigation in the justiciar’s court involved a procedure without writ . There were some cases where oral complaints were taken.
It was possible to obtain a licence to plead by bill instead of writ. No licence was required for certain types of complaints, in some cases below certain financial levels. Bills concerning a debt or trespass above 40 shillings required a licence. Otherwise they must proceed by writ and licence. The licence to proceed by bill required payment of the fee.
Bills or writs could not oust the jurisdiction of local or franchises courts, on matters belonging to the court.
Actions in the Justiciar court in the 13th century were commonly begun by bill rather than writ. The origin is unclear. It appears that bills proceeded in cases where no writ was available and was brought in the County Court. If a writ was available, it had to be used and the matter had to be brought in the King’s Court.
Development of Bills
Plaints related to wrongs done within the borders of the County and were brought by bill.The plaint could proceed without writ in the justiciar’s court. In some cases, it was referred to the special commissioners, arbitration type arrangements by consent or to the county court.
There is evidence of civil pleas being taken to the Dublin bench, and not the liberty court exchequer or the Eyre. Some came directly from the inferior Irish courts while others came from the justiciar. The procedure by which the cases were transferred is obscure in many instances. The proceedings were not in the way of appeals, but more akin to a judicial review.
When the Justiciar came to a county, the county court ceased to function and the Justiciar heard cases which would otherwise be heard before the county court. These cases were begun by bill.
Evolution of Actions by Bill
The procedure with bill died out in England but survived in Ireland. When the King’s Court settled in Dublin, bills were tried by the judges of assize. There was a limit to their jurisdiction being c £30 by the middle of the 17th century.
The procedure by bill was much quicker than by writ. Costs were significantly less. It appears that the judges on arrival on circuit towns gave out blank bills which were sold in shops. The claimant purchased bills, completed the details of the claim and served it on the defendant.
The defendant was summoned to appear before the court and judgment might be given at once. Many hundreds of bills might be heard in the sessions. Where the judge did not have time to hear the bills, he would refer it to a gentleman in the county / justice. The judge collected fees for each bill.
Later Developments of Civil Bill Courts
A statute at the beginning of the 18th century gave power to hear and determine bills for debt, trespass and various other types of claim below certain jurisdictional amount.
Further legislation followed in the 18th century. The judges of assize were relieved of civil bill work and as have been provided in Dublin, since the start of the 18th century, civil bills are heard at quarter sessions.
A barrister of six years standing was appointed in each county, to act as an assistant to the justices at quarter sessions. The assistant barrister was empowered to hear civil bill cases as sole judge. Jurisdictional limits were imposed. Appeals from the assistant barrister were made to the judge of assize. This assistant barrister role ultimately evolved into that of the County Court in the 19th century.
The judges of assize was effectively the High Court on circuit. Ultimately the jurisdiction of the assistant barristers / County Judge was expanded. The powers of the County Court were transferred to the Circuit Court in the Irish Free State and remained with the County Court in Northern Ireland.
Justice of the peace have been appointed in Ireland since the mid-14th century. Irish legislation from 1351 provided for the appointment of four guardians of the peace for each county. At that stage, their principal functions was in keeping law and order. In the medieval period local administration of justice at petty sessions and quarter sessions in accordance with the English practice was not possible in many areas in Ireland.