petty sessions

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petty sessions. These were the regular courts held by the justices of the peace to try minor criminal offences summarily—i.e. without a jury. The office of justice of the peace dates back to the conservators of the peace, appointed by Richard I, but the most important legislation instituting the office was passed in the 14th cent., notably the Justices of the Peace Act, 1361. The first courts held by the justices were the quarter sessions, but by statute and practice justices were also empowered to hear cases ‘on examination’ or summarily. These petty sessions (from French petit or lesser) were first so called in the first half of the 19th cent. They dealt with most criminal offences and, as the magistrates' courts, they continue to do so.

Maureen Mulholland