Petty Sessions

The lowest court, the Petty Sessions, or ‘Magistrate’s Court’ were presided over by local magistrates. Untrained and unpaid, these men (exclusively men until 1919) were self-selected, their authority based upon their wealth and social status.

The Petty Sessions gave people the chance to settle legal or civil matters outside of the courts. Often conducted within a magistrate’s home, victim and accused could make their case in private. This system was intended to ensure that minor offences or grievances could be settled quickly and without using court time.

Resolutions to these cases would be based upon the personal judgement of the sitting magistrate and the circumstances of those involved. If a case was deemed to be too serious to be resolved in this manner, it would be elevated to the Quarter Sessions.

Quarter Sessions

Held four times a year, the Quarter Sessions sat above the Petty Sessions but below the more serious Assizes.

These sessions would, again, be presided over by a local magistrate or ‘Justice of the Peace’ but would also require the presence of a jury. Unlike the juries of today, however, jurors where pre-selected and needed a certain amount of wealth to qualify.

The Quarter Sessions also played an important civil role. Until 1888, when the Local Governments Act created the first County Councils, these sessions would also inspect gaols and lunatic asylums, maintain a counties roads and highways, and give licenses to public houses among other duties among other duties.

Often dealing with petty thievery or drunken brawls, this court didn’t have the power to preside over cases where capital punishment or life imprisonment might have been sentenced. The most serious offences would be elevated to the Assize courts.


Unlike the Petty and Quarter Sessions, the Assizes were presided over by a professional, legally trained judge, visiting the Crown Courts in London. Held two times a year, the Assizes tried the most serious offences such as murder, burglary, or arson.

Judges would travel in circuits. These were routes that judges would take, visiting various courthouses and presiding over different Assizes throughout the country. Their dramatic ceremonial arrival would be attended by hundreds of locals, with large horses pulling carriages, armed soldiers with pikes, and other important legal professionals.

It is in the Assizes that we see some of our most famous stories at Shire Hall. Trials such as that of Elizabeth Martha Brown in 1856, the believed inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Ubervilles’, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834. Each where brought before the awe-inspiring image of the judge at the Assizes.

Assize court judges had the jurisdiction to pass the harshest possible sentences. With more legal authority, judges could pass the sentence of transportation to Australia or even capital punishment, even to children as young as 7 years old. Traditionally, judges would wear a black ribbon handing down this sentence, to show the gravity of their decision.

Where did they go?

In 1972, the Quarter Sessions and Assizes were replaced with the Crown Courts. The Petty Sessions remain in the form of the ‘Magistrates Court’, which mainly deal with what are known as ‘Summary Offences’. This could include motoring offences or minor criminal damage.

Despite their absence today, the Quarter Sessions and Assizes leave a lasting legacy. The stories of those that passed through these courts changed the course of history and helped to shape the society that we live in today.


To discover more stories of the people that passed through these fascinating courts, visit Shire Hall Museum, Dorchester.