Find out if your ancestor ever had a brush with the law in the records of the Irish Petty Sessions. There are more than 20 million records with details of victims and witnesses as well as those accused of a crime. The Petty Sessions were the lowest courts hearing cases about money owing, domestic disputes and public order offences.
Each record contains a transcript and an image of the original entry. The information contained varies considerably but you could find out the following about your ancestor:
The date they were in court
Whether they were a witness, a complainant (or victim) or defendant (accused)
The image often gives a great deal of additional information including:
Details of the offence
Details of the verdict and the sentence
The Petty Sessions were usually covered by the press so you may find out even more about your ancestor’s story in our newspaper collection.
The Petty Sessions handled the bulk of lesser legal cases, both criminal and civil. They were presided over by Justices of the Peace, who were unpaid and often without any formal legal training. The position did not have a wage, so the role was usually taken by those with their own income – in practice usually prominent landowners or gentlemen. Justice was pronounced summarily at these courts, in other words, without a jury.
Cases of a more serious nature, which did require a jury, were held at the Quarter Sessions, which, as the name suggests were held four times a year. The most serious cases, those like murder or treason that carried the death penalty, were presided over by at least one legally trained judge at assizes held twice a year in circuit. The jury courts used a system known as a commission of Oyer and Terminer, a Norman French phrase meaning To See and To Judge. There were two juries, a Grand Jury who assessed the strength of the prosecution evidence, and the trial jury, who would hear the case if the Grand Jury had decided the case was strong enough to go forward to trial.
At the lower levels though, justice was summary and swift. The Petty Sessions, which sat daily, weekly or monthly, depending on the volume of cases, often saw controversial judgements. Every court had a clerk, whose job it was to record the details of each case in a register. It is those registers you are looking at in these records. The clerks also collected any fees from those involved in the cases.
The Petty Sessions were formally established with legislation in 1827, although they had been in operation for centuries before that. By 1851, amid growing concerns about the fairness of some of the justices of the peace, the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act sought to tighten up the rules. JPs were gradually replaced by trained and paid magistrates as the 19th century went on.
Covering both civil and criminal cases, the Petty Sessions’ brief was wide. Cases ranged from merchants who had not paid duty on their goods, to workers suing for unpaid wages. Farmers were fined for letting their cattle wander or for allowing their cart to be driven without their name painted on the side. Debts were collected and disputes settled. Public drunkenness was a common offence, as was assault and general rowdiness. Political feelings were often volatile and there are frequent cases all over the country of people charged with putting up seditious posters or leaflets.
There are very few registers which pre-date 1851 and none for Dublin city, Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown) and some other districts, either because they weren’t covered by the 1851 Act or because the records did not survive.
The Petty Sessions were replaced by the District Courts in Ireland in 1924. The system continues in Northern Ireland where they are usually referred to as Magistrate’s Courts.
The images were provided by Family Search from records held at the National Archives of Ireland. Indexing was carried out by IIM Inc.
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Images provided by and copyright © familysearch.org. Images derived from National Archives of Ireland Petty Sessions records.