The Courts of Quarter Sessions or Quarter Sessions were periodic courts held in each county and county borough in England and Wales until 1972, when together with the Courts of Assize (Assizes) they were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a single permanent Crown Court of England and Wales.
The Quarter Sessions derive their name from the fact that they were required by a statute of 1388 to be held at least four times a year. These were later settled as Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas sessions.
As Bentlry notes in English Criminal Justice in the Nineteenth Century that "the reputation of such courts remained consistently bad throughout the century" due to failure by chairmen to take proper note of evidence, display of open bias against prisoners, and the severity of sentences compared to the Assizes. Chairmen of county sessions did not have to be legally qualified.
Quarter Sessions were also held in the colony of New South Wales. They also existed in North American colonies, sometimes known as Courts of General Sessions, and were held in Pennsylvania until the constitution of that Commonwealth was rewritten in 1968 and the courts were replaced with Courts of Common Pleas in each county, and in New York until a similar reform. In India and Malaysia, the Quarter Sessions have evolved into permanent Sessions courts.
The Quarter Sessions generally heard crimes which could not be tried summarily by the justices of the peace without a jury in petty sessions, which were sent up by the process of indictment to be heard in Quarter Sessions. The Quarter Sessions in each county were made up of two or more justice of the peace, presided over by a chairman, who sat with a jury. In county boroughs which were entitled to have their own Quarter Sessions, there was a single Recorder instead of a bench of justices.
The Quarter Sessions did not have jurisdiction to hear the most serious crimes, most notably those which could be punished by capital punishment or later life imprisonment. These crimes were sent for trial at the periodic Assizes.
The Quarter Sessions also had some limited civil jurisdiction, and until the Local Government Act 1888 created elected county councils, also had important administrative functions in their respective counties. These functions included:
Much of the court's administrative business was delegated to committees of magistrates, who had specific responsibilities. Most of these administrative functions were transferred to county councils when they were established in 1888.
Every Quarter Sessions had a clerk known as the clerk of the peace. For county Quarter Sessions, this person was appointed by the custos rotulorum of the county – the Justice of the Peace for the county charged with custody of its rolls and records. There was a large fee income for the clerk, and he was usually a friend or relative of the custos. The clerk rarely discharged the duties of the office himself, but appointed a solicitor to act as his deputy in return for a share of the fees. After 1852, payment by salary was gradually brought in instead of fees.
In some counties there were multiple Quarter Sessions, quite apart from the urban areas: for example, Yorkshire had its North Riding, West Riding, and East Riding; whilst Northamptonshire's Soke of Peterborough was administered separately. These divisions were carried on to the administrative counties that county councils covered.
There were also Quarter Sessions Courts in Ireland, in Cork, Limerick, Londonderry, Kilkenny and Waterford, Galway, Carrickfergus, Kinsale, Youghal and Dublin.
The recorder of the court sat alone.
In 1840 the Irish Municipal Reform Act 3 & 4 Vic., c. 108. Abolished many city and borough courts, but Dublin, Galway and Carrickfergus retained their courts of Quarter Sessions.
In 1867, the Irish Attorney General, Hedges Eyre Chatterton, issued guidelines in an attempt to regulate the cases which ought not to be tried at quarter sessions, and which should instead be tried at assizes: Treason, murder, treason-felony, rape, perjury, assault with intent to murder, party processions, election riots and all offences of a political or insurrectionary character.
The following Quarter Sessions were abolished by the Justices of the Peace Act 1949 on 1 October 1951.
It also saw a separate Quarter Sessions set up for the Isle of Wight.
A Court of Quarter Sessions was held four times a year in each district to oversee the administration of the district and deal with legal cases in the Province of Upper Canada (later Province of Canada West after 1841). It was created in 1788 and remained in effect until 1849 when local governments and courts were assigned to county governments to replace the district system created in the 1780s.
List of Quarter Session courts in Upper Canada and later in Canada West: