Petty Sessions developed from Quarter Sessions in the 16th Century. Quarter Sessions met only four times a year (Easter, Trinity, Michaelmas, and Ephiphany) however, and the need became apparent for a court to meet in between those sessions, if only to deal with the backlog of relatively minor criminal offenses and the day to day civil business and business licensing of the community. An Act in 1541 required that Justices of the Peace to meet six weeks before Quarter Sessions in order to inquire after these matters and relive the workload of the other court.
These meetings became known as Petty Sessions and gradually began to take on more types of government business. These sessions also dealt with several functions of the new poor law in 1834, which included maintenance of illegitimate children, vagrancy, maintenance of poor relatives, and removals. Petty Sessions relieved the burden of duties on the Quarter Sessions for over three centuries until about 1971, when Petty Sessions and Quarter Sessions were replaced by the Magistrates and Crown Courts.
Overview- Minute Books
During the 19th Century, the court shifted from its initial informal status, conducting regular meetings and requiring records to be kept of the proceedings. Minute Books of the Petty Sessions were the Clerk of the Peace’s notes of proceedings and are a valuable resource for research into the small criminal offenses and businesses of the local division. Though most cases heard before the Petty Sessions are not dealt with as much detail in the Minute Books as might be desired, the offense, a basic description of the offense, and fines levied were included.
Other offenses overseen by the court include drunken and disorderly conduct, permitting drunkenness on a licensed premise, poaching, illegal fishing, neglecting to vaccinate a child, and other such matters. The cases were presented to two or more Magistrates but did not have a jury present. More serious offenses, such as murder, were referred to the Quarter Sessions.
The Minute Books provide a window into the social history of the time and presents an interesting pattern of the less serious offenses in the area, such as owning a dog without license, peddling without a license or furious driving of a carriage, a pre-automobile traffic offense!
Gray, Irvine. County Records: Quarter Sessions, Petty Sessions, Clerk of the Peace, and Lieutenancy. Historical Association. 1973: London.
Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails. Sutton Publishing, 2000: Phoenix Mill.