launch Petty Sessions Court records online has launched 1.2 million cases from the Petty Sessions Court records online, with a further 15 million cases to follow throughout 2012.  Brian Donovan explains what is contained in the Petty Sessions Court records and how they can be of use in your research.

The Petty Sessions Court records are without doubt one of the largest sources of evidence about the Irish population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are between 15 and 20 million records dating from 1828 to 1912 covering all parts of Ireland. Thankfully the courts in Ireland, in their obsession with social order and security, tried and convicted twice the rate of people than their counterparts in England. The court system was also formally established by statute significantly earlier than England and was both more extensive and centrally organised. In the absence of so many other sources, genealogists today can be thankful for this Irish peculiarity.

The Courts of Petty Sessions were the lowest courts in the country, which dealt with the vast bulk of lesser legal cases, civil and criminal. The Courts were historically presided over by two or more unpaid Justices of Peace (JPs, invariably local landowners), a system which led to regular charges of corruption and undue influence by landed interests. Throughout the 19th Century in an effort to bring the worst excesses of the ascendancy under control, centralise state authority, and garner public support for the legal system, the government systematically replaced the JPs with paid (stipendiary) magistrates. As a consequence the courts were commonly known as “Magistrates’ courts”. More than 600 existed across the island at any one time.

Judgements at Petty Sessions were made summarily by the JPs or Magistrate. In other words there was no jury. Depending on the volume of cases to be heard, each Court met daily, weekly or monthly. Every Court had a Clerk who kept the registers according to forms set out in statute. These registers are what is now published online.

Origins of Petty Sessions Courts

Petty Sessions, or more accurately “petit” sessions, originated with the operation of Norman medieval justice. From this time the government appointed Justices of the Peace in each county to act as judges and arbiters of legal cases that were not of the most serious nature (i.e. murder, treason, rape, insurrection, etc.).  In practice the JPs set up Quarter Sessions (courts held 4 times a year) in one or two locations in each county to deal with cases that had to be tried by jury. From the 1500s onwards, JPs were also given rights in certain types of cases to try and convict people summarily. As a consequence JPs began to operate more local level courts to deal with these more minor offences, and rule on civil actions, and so take pressure off the Quarter Sessions.

Reform of the Petty Sessions Courts system in Ireland

Despite centuries of operation, it was not until 1827 that the system governing how Petty Sessions worked was set out by statute with the “Act for the better Administration of Justice at the holding of Petty Sessions by Justices of the Peace in Ireland, 2 July 1827” (7 & 8 George IV c.67). This specified that the Grand Jury in each county (the forerunners of modern county councils) should set out petty sessions districts in a formal manner. It also required proper registers to be kept, trained clerks, and regular courts. The system was overhauled again in 1851 with another act, “Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act” which sought tighter regulation of the keeping of records and meeting of courts.

The operation of petty sessions clerks was also set out by statute in 1851, when a central agency was established to govern their work and oversee their registers. It is only from this date that the majority of petty sessions registers survive. There are less than 300 registers that survive in the National Archives of Ireland that pre-date 1851, but over 10,000 which survive for later years. It is also likely that there are other survivals in local libraries, court houses or in private hands. But there are none for Dublin city or Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown) which had their own police courts, which while similar to the petty sessions courts did not require mandatory record keeping. Other court districts also have no surviving registers due to loss or destruction.

The surviving registers contain all the salient details of the cases heard, including:

  • Date
  • Name of JP or Magistrate
  • Name and address of the Complainant (often RIC)
  • Name and address of the Defendant
  • Names of witnesses
  • Details of the case
  • Details of the judgement and fine (if any)
  • Details of any custodial sentence

1924 Petty Sessions Courts replaced by District Courts in Ireland

This system was replaced in the Republic by the District courts in 1924, where courts were amalgamated to significantly reduce the number in operation. Magistrates’ courts are still in operation in Northern Ireland, although they meet in fewer locations.

Petty Sessions records and family history

Family historians will find this an essential resource. There were few families that did not need to interact with the courts at some level, from licensing a dog, to resolving a civil dispute to being the perpetrator or victim of a petty offence or infraction of the law. This extent of coverage can help pinpoint a person in a place at a specific date.  In light of the relatively late start date for civil records, and the destruction of the 19th Century Census, these records are an effective census substitute, and can allow you to pick out your ancestor from their doppelganger, i.e. someone of the same name, who flourished in the same time-frame.   However the real value of the Petty Sessions records is that they open a window into the past, so that you can see clearly the events that shaped your ancestors’ lives. Knowledge of a family dispute, a disagreement over a field boundary, a petty criminal action, or even being arrested for drunkenness at the time of a birth or death in the family, provides context and enables you to construct stories around your family narrative.

Used in conjunction with other sources the Petty Sessions Court records can be even more powerful. For example, many of the more serious disputes and cases are likely to have spawned a local newspaper report close to the date of the hearing. Newspaper accounts can often add additional detail to the summary of the case in the registers. Used alongside other local sources, like church records and estate papers, researchers can build community profiles to put their ancestors’ and their neighbours’ actions in context. For example, prosecutions for poaching game say much about social class, poverty and survival, while frequent cases for ‘playing [sports] on the roads’, or ‘making an ice-slide’ on a public right of way, tell us something of the indomitable high spirits of children and young people at any time in the past.

Search the Petty Sessions Court records online at now.  1.2 million records are currently online, but remember that a further 15 million will be going online throughout 2012, so do keep checking back!

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