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Encyclopedia > Petty sessions

A magistrate's court or petty sessions is the lowest kind of court in England and Wales and other common law jurisdictions. A magistrate's court is presided over by two or more Justices of the Peace (magistrates), or by a stipendiary magistrate, and dispenses summary justice, under powers usually limited by statute.

Common law jurisdictions are unique in the maintenance of a lay magistracy, i.e. magistrates who are not legally trained. They date from at least 1327, when an Act provided that "good and lawful men" be appointed in every county in the land to guard the Peace. In former times Justices of the Peace would be noblemen or squires, but nowadays are more like what Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America as "well-informed citizens". A bench of (usually three) magistrates is advised on the law by a legally-qualified clerk, and functions somewhat like a jury, albeit with presiding and sentencing powers.

In towns and boroughs, magistrates' courts are often presided by stipendiary magistrates, legally-qualified and salaried magistrates. Stipendiary magistrates usually sit alone, like an ordinary judge, but sometimes sit with lay magistrates.

Magistrates in England and Wales also perform the functions formerly performed by grand juries (as still happens in the United States), in indicting people accused of offences which need to be tried by a petty jury and committing them to the Crown Court for trial. As well as criminal matters, magistrates have various civil and administrative functions, such as issuing alcohol licences.

See also

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Quarter Sessions - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (360 words)
Historically, 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 Assizes courts 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.
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.
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