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Judicial reform: the 1840s and 1850s

From the early 19th century as the workload of the courts increased, Parliament was pressed to take action to reform the operation of the judicial system.

Between 1805 and 1842 the number of prosecutions in courts of assize and quarter sessions rose from 4,600 to 31,300. This was an outcome of rapid urbanisation and the development of new police forces acting as vigilant prosecutors.

Lightening the burden

To lighten the burden of work falling on these courts, Parliament passed its Summary Jurisdiction Act in 1848 giving the petty sessions, or magistrates' courts, increased powers to try a broader range of criminal charges.

The Act also enabled lesser offences to be dealt with by them without a jury. Further powers were granted to the petty sessions later in the century.

Small Debts Act

Another significant reform was the Small Debts Act of 1846 which abolished the old courts of requests that dealt with civil matters and replaced them with a new network of some 500 county courts throughout England and Wales. The small claims maximum was raised to £50.

The courts soon established a reputation for efficiency, and were often known as 'the poor man's court'. During March-December 1847 alone they dealt with 429,215 claims.

Personal injury and bankruptcy

Under later legislation they were entrusted with other forms of legal arbitration such as personal injury and bankruptcy.

The success of Parliament's reforms in these lower courts during the 1840s and 1850s turned legislators' attention to reforming the procedures of the higher courts at Westminster.

Did you know?

The Common Law Procedure Act of 1854 removed the need for juries in all civil cases heard in the high courts. In 1933 the Administration of Justice Act ended their use in civil cases altogether.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Commons considers the Committee Stage of the Small Debts Bill