The court of quarter sessions was the meeting of the justices of the peace for the county held quarterly at Epiphany (January), Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas (Autumn). While in the other English counties the office of justice had been in existence since the 14th century, it was not until 1536 that Cheshire was statutorily obliged to have justices appointed by the crown in commissions of the peace and establish courts of quarter sessions. Courts were originally held at Chester, Middlewich, Northwich, Nantwich and Knutsford, but from 1760 the only sessions towns were Chester (Epiphany and Easter) and Knutsford (Midsummer and Michaelmas). Additionally, the city of Chester had its own quarter sessions, formally established by the ‘Great Charter’ of 1506 which empowered the mayor and aldermen who had held that office to act as justices of the peace and created the new office of recorder. Under the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, Chester Corporation petitioned retain its separate Quarter Sessions and this was granted in William IV’s charter of 1836.
Sessions’ business encompassed three areas:
- Dispensing of justice
- Local government administration
- Statutory enrolment and registration of documents.
Justices were empowered to enforce national political, administrative and religious policy, the criminal law (including committal proceedings to the Assize courts), taxation, rating, the poor law, maintenance of gaols, roads and bridges, regulation of wages, prices and alehouses and the heating of petitions. Administration and justice was dealt with by the same process. The clerk of the peace was the recipient of an ever increasing number of statutory documents such as land tax assessments, enclosure awards and plans of public undertakings.
During the 19th century a system of paid officials and delegation to committees evolved, while many administrative functions (for example, the Poor Law after 1834) were transferred to other bodies. Finally, the establishment of the county councils under the 1888 Local Government Act left quarter sessions with purely judicial functions. From January 1972, under the Courts Act 1971, quarter sessions and assizes were replaced by crown courts administered by central government.
Records of the County Quarter Sessions (Cheshire Archives and Local Studies reference Q) and the Chester Quarter Sessions (ZQ) are catalogued separately.