I am researching the life of a dead relative who was tried and convicted of an offence by Quarter Sessions in 1953. The local archivist has a copy of the file, but wants me to establish whether the proceedings were held in open court or not. Can you tell me whether Quarter Sessions hearings were held in open court, and if so, other than the data protection act, whether there are any statutory restrictions on public access?
(A.O, 5 July 2009)
In legal terms, the phrase “open court” means that the proceedings are held in public, and it would seem that this would have applied to the Quarter Sessions proceedings. That said, some trials are in camera, or in private, and without more detail it would be impossible to know if your relative’s was one of them. However, in all likelihood it would have been held in open court, unless there were special circumstances involved, since that was the basis of most proceedings – and is indeed the basis of our judicial system.
The Quarter Session system ended in the early 1970s, and is now the Crown Court, but its history is long, going back to 1362, and the name refers to the fact that they were held four times a year.
The Quarter Sessions dealt with more serious crimes, ones that were beyond the scope of the local Petty Sessions. However, the most serious crimes, which could end in a verdict of death, would go on to be tried by the Assizes. But the Quarter Sessions also heard a number of civil cases, most particularly concerning local administration, where they handled the duties that would later be assumed by county councils, or things like bankruptcy.
Britain exported the concept of Quarter Sessions – indeed, much of its legal system – to parts of the globe, with Quarter Sessions held in Ireland, New South Wales, and the American colonies, as well as India and Malaysia.
Many Quarter Sessions records are held by either local or national archives. In fact, they can make for fascinating reading, with cases reported in full. The tales to be found say a lot about the people and the country at different times in history, including those who ended up transported, either to North America or later to Australia.
As to restrictions on public access, with more than 50 years gone since the trial of your relative (who is probably dead), there should be no restriction on access to all the details of the case – although one would assume your local archivist would be familiar with the law pertaining to these matters. There were cases which had reporting restrictions, but your researches should already have established whether this applied to your relative.
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