Victorian London - Legal - Courts - list of law courts

see also Henry Mayhew's in Criminal Prisons of London (1862) - click here

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Law Courts.—Prior to the Conquest there was only one superior court of justice in the kingdom. This court, called the curia regis, originally sat at Westminster where the king had a palace, anti his treasury and exchequer. It seems to have been originally held at Westminster in a chamber called the exchequer chamber (or chamber ornamented with stars), which was probably the chamber in which in Edward III.s time the king sat with his council to levy fines and amercements for the exchequer. Here too, subsequently sat the celebrated Star Chamber. The Hall of Westminster, or as it is now called Westminster Hall, was built in the time of William Rufus; and it was in this hall up to the year 1820 that the courts were held. The curia regis being bound to follow the king in his progresses the trial of common causes was found much delayed; and it was therefore enacted in Magna Carta that the Common Pleas should sit certo loco. This place was Westminster, and from that time the Common Pleas sat in Westminster Hall. The King’s Bench and the Exchequer still continued to follow the king to any place where he might be; but, as time went on, the courts became separated, and the King’s Bench appears to have sat in Westminster Hall from the time of Henry III. The Chancery was separated from the curia regis as early as the reign of Richard I., but it was not until about the reign of Henry VIII. that the Chancery sat regularly in the Hall, and then only in term time. Out of term the Chancellors sat at various places, sometimes at their own houses.
The appearance of the courts as they were held in the Hall up to the year 1820 is well represented in the familiar drawing of Gravelot. Each court consisted of a simple bench raised within a canopy and side curtain, a bench beneath for the officers of the court, a bar within which were assembled the Queen’s Counsel, and outside stood the barristers and the public. The Chancery and King’s Bench were stationed at the extreme end of the Hall, opposite the great door, near which, in the north-western corner, was the Common Pleas. The rest of the Hall was taken up by the stalls of a booksellers, fruiterers, and others, who plied their trade with as much zeal and noise as did the advocates higher up the Hall. It is not quite known where the Exchequer was; it was probably held, at least, ordinarily, in the Exchequer Chamber, which was also used for the arguments of great questions of law.
So matters stood up to 1820, when the courts now in use were bulk. The pressure of business, however, soon drove the Chancery Court to Lincoln’s-inn, where new courts were erected for the administration of that branch of the law. The new- courts at Westminster were also soon found adequate for the business of the common law, and they had not been built ten years when a violent dispute arose as to their capacity for the constantly increasing business. This agitation gradual1y increased until it culminated in the scheme of the new Palace of Justice now in course of erection.
The present courts in the metropolis are the following:
HOUSE OF LORDS (THE).—The court of ultimate appeal in the kingdom sits in the House of Lords itself to hear appeals from the courts of appeal in England, Scotland1 and Ireland. The House sits not only during the sittings of Parliament, but also during the prorogation at times appointed by the House during the previous session, while the Queen has power, by writing under her sign manual, to authorise them to hear appeals during a dissolution. The appeals are by case, and are regulated by the standing orders of the House, which must be strictly followed. The House of Lords at present in use was opened for judicial business in the year 1847 the old house having been destroyed by fire in the year 1834.
JUDICIAL COMMITTEE OP THE PRIVY COUNCIL (THE) hears appeals from the colonies as well as ecclesiastical cases. It sits in Downing-street, and presents this extraordinary feature, that the judgment of the majority is given as the judgment of the whole court, dissenting judges having no power to express their dissent in any shape or way. Besides the judges who are appointed to sit in the Privy Council, the bishops and archbishops sit as assessors in ecclesiastical cases.
SUPREME COURT OP JUDICATURE (THE), as at present constituted, consists of the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice. The Court of Appeal sits in two Divisions, one at Westminster in Committee Room E, the other at Lincoln’s-inn. The former takes appeals from the Common Law Division, the latter from the Chancery Divisions, including Bankruptcy Appeals.
The High Court of Justice consists of five Divisions, viz.: the Chancery, Queen’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, and Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty Divisions. The Chancery Division sits at Lincoln’s-inn, the other four at Westminster.
The Queen’s Bench Division still retains exclusive jurisdiction over the civil and criminal proceedings previously exercised by the Crown side of the Court of Queen’s Bench; the Common Pleas Division retains jurisdiction over appeals from Revising Barristers, while the Exchequer retains its powers as a Court of Revenue.
The sittings of the High Court of Appeal, and the sittings in London and Middlesex of the High Court of justice, are four in number, viz.: The Michaelmas Sittings, commencing on the end of November, and terminating on the 21st of December; the Hilary Sittings, commencing on the 11th of January, and terminating on the Wednesday before Easter; the Easter Sittings, commencing on the Tuesday after Easter week, and terminating on the Friday before Whit Sunday; and the Trinity Sittings, commencing on the Tuesday after Whitsun week and terminating on the 8th of August. The Courts in banco, that is, to hear legal arguments on the common law side during these sittings, sit always at Westminster, but the Nisi Prius Courts (for the trial of causes) sit during a portion of the time at the Guildhall, The London sittings are generally held about March and December, and last a fortnight; but the practice now is, if possible, to have concurrent sittings, both at Westminster and Guildhall, during these periods. The Common Law Divisions sit at 10.30 daily, and rise at 4, except on Saturdays, when they rise at 2. The different Courts of the Chancery Division generally sit at 10. The Vacations of the Supreme Court are four in number, the Long Vacation, commencing on the 10th of August, and terminating on the 24th of October; the Christmas Vacation, commencing on the 24th of December, and terminating on the 6th of January; the Easter Vacation commencing on Good Friday and terminating on Easter Tuesday; and the Whitsun Vacation, commencing on the Saturday before Whit Sunday, and terminating on the Tuesday after Whit Sunday. During the Long Vacation two judges sit occasionally at Lincoln’s-inn generally once a week, to dispose of pressing business, and these Vacation Judges (chosen at the commencement of the year) have likewise the power to dispose of such business during other parts of the year when the Courts are not sitting, at times which may not strictly be in vacation. The sittings of the Courts are interrupted at intervals by reason of the Judges having to go on the various circuits, which are now held four times a year.
COURT FOR THE CONSIDERATION OF CROWN CASES RESERVED (THE) sits from time to time in each sitting, to hear appeals on questions of law in criminal cases, there being no appeal in such cases on questions of fact.
LONDON BANKRUPTCY COURT (THE) is held in Lincoln’s-inn-fields, the public entrances being 5, Portugal-street and 34, Lincoln’s-inn-fields. The court is open during vacation, when the office hours are 11 till 2 in term they are 10 till 4, except on Saturdays, when they are to till 2.
SHERIFFS COURT (THE), Red Lion-square, is held merely for the assessment of damages, in cases in which the liability is admitted, and the sole question is the amount of damages to be awarded, as well as in cases for the assessment of compensation under the Lands Clauses Act. It has no fixed sessions, but when any assessment of any nature has to be made, an appointment for the hearing is fixed at the office.
RAILWAY COMMISSIONERS (THE) were appointed in 1873 for the purpose of carrying into effect the provisions of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act, 1854, whereby railway and canal companies are required, amongst other things, to afford all reasonable facilities for the forwarding of traffic, and to give no undue preference in favour of any particular person. The commissioners are three in number, and sit from time to time at Westminster.
WRECK COMMISSONERS, COURT (THE) is held at Westminster and other places, when requested by the Board of Trade, to hold investigations into shipping casualties, and the same are generally held by one of the Wreck Commissioners (of whom there cannot be more than three in existence at one time) sitting with assessors. The court derives its powers from the Merchant Shipping Act, 1876.
ECCLESIASTICAL COURTS (THE) are two in number:
Arches Court (The) is a Court of Appeal belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is held in Westminster, and it has jurisdiction to try appeals from each of the diocesan courts within the province, the diocesan Courts taking cognizance of all ecclesiastical matters arising within their respective limits.
Consistory Court of London (The) is the ordinary court of the bishop, in which all the ecclesiastical causes within his jurisdiction are tried. It is generally held at the Chapter House, St. Paul’s, but not always.
CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT (THE) is held at the Old Bailey. It has jurisdiction to try all treasons, murders, felonies, and misdemeanours committed within the city of London and county of Middlesex, and certain parts of Essex, Kent, and Surrey. The commissions of Oyer and Terminer are issued annually, and on the first day of the Michaelmas sittings the commissioners assemble to fix the sittings, which must be at least twelve in every year, and to appoint the judges who are to attend them according to a certain rota. The list of sittings can always be obtained on application to the clerk of the court.
Two judges attend every session to try the more serious offences, while the Recorder, Common Serjeant, and Judge of the Sheriffs’ Court, preside over the other. In each court one alderman at the least must be present.
Besides this jurisdiction, it may be mentioned that the court has an additional jurisdiction, to try offences committed on the high seas, within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England.
POLICE COURTS (THE) —(See POLICE). —The magistrates of these courts are all stipendiaries, and may do any act directed to be done by more than one justice, except at petty sessions. Within the city of London there are two police-courts, viz, the Mansion House and Guildhall. In these courts the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City are empowered to act alone, and to do all things which are otherwise required to be done by more than one justice. Within the City, too, any two justices having jurisdiction therein have all the powers which any one magistrate of the before-mentioned police-courts has; while outside the districts assigned to the police courts, but within the Metropolitan District, two magistrates, besides having the ordinary county jurisdiction, have also, when sitting together, the powers of a single magistrate in the same way as two justices within the city of London. The limits of the Metropolitan Police District excludes the city of London, but includes the whole of Middlesex and parts of Surrey, Hertford, Essex, and Kent, within a radius of about t5 miles from Charing-cross. The police-courts are regulated by 2 & 3 Vict. c. 75, and 3 & 4 Vict. c.84, while the City Police is regulated by 2 & 3 Vict. c. 44. The magistrates sitting in the police-courts have a summary and regular jurisdiction. This summary jurisdiction is regulated by various Acts of Parliament, and enables them to dispose of cases coming within it in a summary manner. Such are proceedings in respect of a variety of minor offences, which are prohibited only under pecuniary penalties. This power they can exercise in cases of larceny, when the value of the property stolen does not exceed 5s, provided that the person charged consent to that course being adopted, and provided also that the offence is not one which, owing to a previous conviction, is punishable with penal servitude, in which case he can sentence the prisoner to three months’ imprisonment. In cases of simple larceny exceeding 5s., if the case be one which may be properly disposed of in a summary manner, and if the prisoner plead guilty, the magistrate has power then to sentence him to six months’ imprisonment. In cases beyond their summary jurisdiction, they are bound, if a sufficient case be made out, to commit the prisoner for trial.
MIDDLESEX SESSIONS (THE) are held at the Sessions House, Clerkenwell-green, and at the Sessions House, Westminster ; at the former the court sits to try criminal cases and to transact county business, at the latter to hear appeals, The list of sittings for the year is made up in December, and can be obtained at the office of the clerk of the peace, Clerkenwell-green. A general and adjourned general sessions are held in each month, except in those months appointed for the ordinary quarter sessions, when the quarter sessions and an adjourned quarter sessions are held. There are thus twenty-four sessions in the year. The grand jury are summoned on the Monday, when they take the men’s cases, the bills for the women’s cases are taken on the Tuesday, and a special day is fixed for the bail cases. The court consists of a bench of magistrates, presided over by the Assistant Judge. The appeal days will also be found on the printed list, and are fixed generally in the months of January, April, July, and October; while the applications for licences for music and dancing are generally fixed for a day in October.
GENERAL ASSESSMENT SESSIONS (THE) for the metropolis, are held in February in each year in the Westminster Sessions before three justices of Middlesex (of whom the assistant-judge must be one), two of London, two of Kent, and two of Surrey, who are appointed yearly in October, for determining appeals against the Valuation List made under the Valuation Act, 1869. These lists are made up every five years, during which time they form the basis on which the hereditaments therein valued are to be rated. The first list under the Act came into operation on the 6th April, 1871, so it is from this date the quinquenial period is to be calculated. During this quinquenial period, however, supplemental lists are made each year to meet the cases where alterations in the lists have taken place in the preceding twelve months, or of houses which have been built or altered between the times at which the valuation list is made out. It is for the purpose of hearing appeals from these various lists that the assessment sessions are held.
GENERAL ANNUAL LICENSING MEETING (THE) for Middlesex and Surrey, is required, by 9th Geo. IV. c. 61, to be held within the first, ten days of March in each year. The day, hour, and place of each meeting must be fixed by the justices, 21 days before the meeting. At this meeting the justices assembled are likewise to appoint not less than four or more than eight special sessions for transferring licenses from one person to another and for other contingencies. By long usage the general annual licensing meeting for the city of London is held on the second Monday of the month of March, the Act of 9th Geo. IV.   c. 61, not applying to the city of London. If the justices refuse to grant a new license there is no appeal, and even if they grant one it will not he valid until it be confirmed by the Confirming Committee. The only appeal is against the refusal to renew or transfer a license, in which case an .appeal lies to the quarter sessions.
CONFIRMATION COMMITTEE (THE) is held to confirm the grant of new licenses to sell liquor to be consumed on the premises, without which such grant would not be valid.
SURREY SESSIONS (THE) are held at Newington. There are at least twelve sessions a year, and generally thirteen, and sometimes fourteen— the two latter being for gaol deliveries prior to the assizes. The list of sittings can be obtained at the court. Its proceedings are substantially the same as the Middlesex Sessions, the annual licensing meeting being regulated by the same acts as regulate the holding of the same in Middlesex.
SPECIAL SESSIONS are also held at the different special sessional divisions in the metropolis for various purposes, such as the poor rates, highways, and others. These are always fixed by the justices of special sessions, and particulars of them can be obtained upon application to the clerks of the several sessional divisions.
COURTS WITHIN THE CITY.— The Lord Mayor’s Court.— This court is of very ancient origin, and though the business transacted in it is not so extensive as it was a few years ago, a considerable portion of the litigation arising within the City is disposed of therein. It is an inferior court, but has jurisdiction overall actions without any limitation as to the amount of the debt or damages claimed, provided that in cases where the claim is over £50 the whole cause of action arose within the City. In cases under £50 no objection to the jurisdiction can be taken, provided that the defendant dwells or carries on his business within the City at the time of action brought, or provided he shall have done so within six months before that time, or if the cause of action either wholly or in part arose therein. This court also awards compensation under the Lands Clauses Act. The court sits every month at the Guildhall, the judge being the Recorder, the Common Serjeant, or a deputy appointed by them. The sittings are fixed each month, and are generally held towards the middle of the month. In certain cases there is an appeal to the superior courts. In this court many of the old City customs age still recognised and upheld; the most curious of which is that of foreign attachment, which enables the plaintiff, if the defendant does not appear, or is not within the jurisdiction, to attach any goods or debts owing to the defendant from any person within the jurisdiction. The procedure of this court is regulated by the Mayor’s Court Procedure Act, 1857 (20 & 21 Vict. c. 157).
City of London Court (The) - formerly called the Sheriffs’ Court of the City of London, is now practically a county Court, and is held at Guildhall-buildings in the city of London; the offices being open from 10 till 4, except on Saturdays, when they are open from 10 till 1. It has jurisdiction up to £50, and is regulated by 15 & 16 Vict. c. 77.
Secondaries Court (The) is a Sheriffs’ Court, and is held in the city of London, at the Guildhall. It occupies the same position in the City as the Sheriffs’ Court, Red Lion-square, does in the county of Middlesex, with the exception that it does not assess damages under the Lands Clauses Act, which cases are heard in the Mayor’s Court.
City Sessions (The) are held for the purpose of granting and transferring licenses within the city of London. They are held at the Guildhall from time to time, and information as to them can always be obtained upon application at Guildhall.
Hasting Court (The), a very ancient court in the City, is now obsolete.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879


Civil Courts-The Lord Chancellor and the Courts of Chancery-Courts of Queen's Bench, the Common Pleas, and the Exchequer-Judicial Committee of the Privy Council-County Courts-Criminal Courts -Central Criminal Court-Old Bailey-High Court of Justice.


THE law of England is divided, for the benefit of the lawyers, into two great branches, the Common Law and Equity, each with its own rules, modes of procedure, and judges. The only persons who have the right of speaking in these courts on behalf of clients are barristers, gentlemen who have been called to the bar by one of the four INNS OF COURT, and from them the judges are Selected, on the occurrence of vacancies, by the ministry of the day. These persons appear in court in black gowns and gray wigs. Of barristers there are three grades; viz. 1. Serjeants-at-law, gentlemen who, after having been a certain number of years at the bar, have induced the Lord Chancellor to advance them to this dignity. As this step is a costly one, and as the serjeants have no longer exclusive audience in the Court of Common Pleas, their numbers are becoming small. They are always addressed as "Mr. Serjeant ----," and are to be known in court by the black patch on the crown of the wig, and by the judges always styling them "brother," in consequence of the occupants of the bench being invariably made serjeants when they take their seats, if they were not of this dignity previously. On the appointment of a serjeant, it is the custom for him to distribute gold rings, with an appropriate motto, to the Sovereign, the Lord Chancellor, the Judges, and others. 2. Queen's Counsel, who wear silk gowns, and have seats within the bar. The Chancellor has the privilege of making queen's counsel of barristers after a certain number of years. The dignity has no salary attached to it, and involves the inability of supporting a client against the crown without permission to do so, which permission, however, is invariably given on application. Queen's counsel have precedence over their seniors at the bar who have not arrived at this rank, and they are entitled by the etiquette of the profession to higher fees 3. Barristers below the bar, who wear staff gowns. The judges are taken indiscriminately from the three ranks, though it is rarely that a stuff gown is elevated to the bench. The Attorney and Solicitor-General, officers appointed by the Crown as its representatives, are considered the chiefs of the bar in the common law and equity courts respectively. They have seats in Parliament, and are the official legal advisers of the Government. The remuneration they receive in the shape of fees is very large, the income of the Attorney-General from his whole business, public and private, averaging £20,000 a-year. On the occurrence of a vacancy on the bench, the offer of the place is always made to them in the first instance, but the Attorney-General will only accept the highest prizes of the profession.
    The chief administrator of equity law is the Lord Chancellor, who is assisted by the Master of the Rolls and three Vice-Chancellors, each of whom has a separate court. From their decision an appeal lies to the two Lords Justices, who sit together, and their judgments may be reviewed by the Lord Chancellor, who now-a-days seldom or never hears cases except in the way of appeal. Lastly, the ultimate court of appeal is the House of Lords. The whole house nominally hears and decides the appeal, but in point of fact the Law Lords (i.e., such peers as have been lawyers) decide the case.
    The Chancellorship is a place of great dignity. The holder of it, though usually only a baron, ranks next after the royal family and before every other peer of the realm. lie is speaker of the upper house of Parliament, where he sits on a particular seat called "the woolsack." He receives his appointment by delivery to him, by the hands of the sovereign, of the Great Seal of England, of which he is the custodian. This seal, placed in an embroidered bag, is deposited, along with the silver-gilt mace, upon the table when he takes his seat in court or in the House of Lords. This seal consists of two dies six inches across, one of which is engraved with the figure of the sovereign on the throne, the other with her figure on horseback. The mode of using the seal is to close the dies, placing between them the ribbon or slip of parchment intended to receive the seal. The wax is poured in through a channel left for the purpose. On the death of the sovereign the old seal is cut into pieces, which are deposited in the tower, and a new seal is prepared.
    The Mastership of the Rolls is an office of ancient date. The holder, besides being an equity judge, is the custos rotulorum of the realm, and the new Record Office has accordingly been built on the Rolls Estate in Fetter Lane. During term all the equity judges sit in courts at Westminster ; in vacation they sit in courts at Lincoln's Inn, except the Master of the Rolls, who sits in his own court in Chancery Lane.
    There are three superior courts of common law, the Queen's Bench, the Common Pleas, and the Exchequer, all of which date from a very ancient period. The bulk of the business is of the same general nature in all, but the Queen's Bench has exclusive jurisdiction in criminal cases which belong to the crown side of the court, whilst civil business is taken on the plea side; and the Exchequer has exclusive jurisdiction in revenue cases. There are six judges in each of these courts, all of whom, though only knights, are styled "My Lord." The chiefs of the Queen's Bench and the Common Pleas are styled "Lord Chief Justice," the junior or puisne judges, "Mr. Justice." The head of the Court of Exchequer is styled "Lord Chief Baron," and the puisne judges, "Mr. Baron." The courts in which these judges and the equity judges sit, are on the right hand side of Westminster Hall; they were built from Soane's designs, and are so inconveniently small that new courts have been long talked of.
    Appeals from the decisions of any one of these courts lie to the Court of Exchequer Chamber, which is constituted of the judges of the other two courts ; and from the Court of Exchequer Chamber the appeal is to the House of Lords.
    The Court of Probate and the Court of Divorce were constituted in 1857, and are presided over by the same judge. In the former, questions relating to the proof of wills are decided; in the latter, where, we are sorry to say, the business is large, applications for the dissolution of the marriage tie are heard. Previous to the constitution of this court the only mode of obtaining a divorce a vinculo matrimonii, was through the House of Lords, and the proceeding was so expensive that only very rich people could avail themselves of it.
    Appeals from the Indian and Colonial Courts, and from the Maritime and Ecclesiastical Courts, lie to the Queen in Council, arid are heard before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, sitting at the Privy Council Office, Whitehall. This committee consists of persons filling or who have filled the office of judge in some other court, and four paid judges.
    The New Law Courts, in course of erection in the Strand, just through Temple Bar, are intended for the use of all the judges, so that all the Courts may be concentrated. It is calculated that the magnificent pile, to be erected in accordance with the designs of Messrs. Barry and Street, will be completed and ready for occupation in 1881.
    THE COUNTY COURTS, constituted under a modern Act of Parliament, are minor courts distributed over England, under the presidency of judges; and. of these there are ten in the metropolis.


THE CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT in the Old Bailey was established in 1834 for the trial of offences committed in the metropolis and certain parts of the adjoining counties. The Sessions take place twelve times a year before two of the common law judges. The lighter charges are disposed of by the recorder and common serjeant, officers of the corporation.
    THE SESSIONS HOUSE, Clerkenwell Green (now only a paved roadway), is the building where the magistrates for the county of Middlesex hold their quarterly sessions with the aid of the assistant judge. It was built in 1780, and refronted with Portland stone in 1860. One of the rooms contains a carved oak chimney-piece brought from Hicks' Hall, and bearing an inscription recording the gift of it in 1612 by Sir Baptist Hicks, a city mercer, afterwards Viscount Campden, who in that year presented to the justices and their successors for ever, for their meetings, a house which he had erected for that purpose in the neighbouring St. John Street. This building received the name of Hicks' Hall, and was a noted landmark from which distances were measured. There are milestones still remaining inscribed with the number of miles "from the spot where Hicks' Hall formerly stood.
    THE SESSIONS HOUSE, Westminster, is also used for the trial of offenders in Middlesex.

Black's Guide to London and Its Environs, (8th ed.) 1882