At the heart of the criminal justice system were the courts. Here those accused of crimes were tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to death, transportation, imprisonment or some other form of punishment. There were a wide variety of courts to be found in eighteenth-century England, but the most important were the Court of King’s Bench and the assize courts, which heard the most serious cases; the county and borough courts of quarter sessions, which heard less serious cases; and, finally, the courts of summary jurisdiction, which dealt with misdemeanours. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, two important shifts took place in the distribution of cases. First, a number of felonies, notably grand larceny, were transferred from assize to quarter session, leading ultimately to the position whereby the former dealt with capital offences and the latter with non-capital offences. Second, there was a transfer of offences from quarter session to petty session as the scope of summary justice was expanded, most notably in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1857, it was estimated that justices at quarter sessions dealt with four times the number of indictable offences dealt with at assizes, while justices in petty sessions dealt with 20 times the number of cases dealt with in all other courts.2 By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the predominance of summary justice was overwhelming. Of all those dealt with by the courts, 98 per cent were tried summarily (91 per cent for non-indictable offences, 7 per cent for indictable) while the remaining 2 per cent were dealt with by the superior courts.
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