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Civil courts and communities

By the mid-18th century the expansion of trade and business had led to a huge growth in small-scale credit arrangements. As a result commercial disputes over the recovery of small debts became common.

The need for a cheap and straightforward means of recovering money was keenly felt by tradesmen in many areas.

Small debts recoverable

Leading towns and cities like London, Bristol, Norwich and Newcastle, had already obtained Acts of Parliament in the late 17th century allowing them to establish what were known as courts of requests to consider claims for small amounts.

These were tribunals of local merchants and senior townsmen (usually known as commissioners), sitting without a jury. Each court was restricted to a particular town, some being limited to claims of £2, and others to £5.

Summary jurisdiction

They offered the same kind of summary jurisdiction in civil matters as Justices of the Peace did in minor criminal matters.

Birmingham and Liverpool obtained Acts of Parliament to set up courts of requests in 1751. Further legislation during the 1770s approved courts in the main textile producing areas of Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire and in Devon.

Big growth in courts

Between 1748 and 1800 Parliament passed 51 Acts establishing these types of courts in various parts of Britain. As many as 400 of them were created in the period from 1660 up to 1846 when they were replaced with a network of county courts.

The courts of request ensured that legal arbitration in civil disputes was not the preserve of wealthy elites, but was available to skilled workers, farmers and shopkeepers. In highly populated urban areas by 1830 these courts were dealing with more than 20,000 claims each year.

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