Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: November 30, 2019
Webpage updated: November 30, 2019




In the year 1195 King Richard I commissioned knights in unruly areas to preserve the "King's Peace" but it was probably not until an Act of 1327, which required that 'good and lawful men' be appointed in every county to 'guard the peace', that this method of law enforcement was introduced in to the County of Devon.  They were known as Conservators of the Peace until an Act of 1361, in the reign of King Edward III, gave them the title of Justices of the Peace.   The Act also required them to meet four times a year to hear the local criminal cases, which was the origin of their later title of Quarter Sessions.

Before Plymouth gained its status as a Borough, the administration of the law would have been carried out through the Shire Court at Exeter or locally the Hundred Court.  The Hundred Courts lost their power after the 15th century and were disbanded altogether by 1886, following the County Court Act of 1867.

During the sixteenth century many Justices of the Peace, being mainly gentry and local landowners, set themselves up as local groups for the speedy transaction of business relating to vagrants and poor relief, where a jury was not required.  In 1605 this arrangement was formalised by an Order of the Privy Council and these became known as the Petty Sessions.  In 1828 the system was confirmed by Act of Parliament and Petty Sessional Districts came in to being, each administered by a legally qualified clerk.

In the nineteenth century the Borough of Plymouth held both its Petty Sessions and Quarter Sessions in the Guildhall in Whimple Street.  The Borough of Devonport held Petty and Quarter Sessions in the Town Hall in Ker Street.   Stonehouse also used the Devonport Town Hall for its Petty Sessions.  When the new Saint George's or Stonehouse Town Hall was opened, their Petty Sessions were transferred to its court house and the newly-formed County Court was also held there.

The Petty Sessions Court for the parishes that made up the Hundred of Roborough, including Pennycross, St Budeaux, Eggbuckland, Tamerton Foliot and Bickleigh, plus the Tything of Compton Gifford, was held in the court house on the main Tavistock Road at Roborough village, to the north of Plymouth.

The County Court was established as a result of the County Court Act 1846.  They were presided over by a Circuit Judge appointed by the Lord Chancellor.  Its function was to adjudicate in civil disputes.

In 1963 the County Court, formerly the Quarter Sessions, were transferred to the new Law Courts building in Armada Way, opposite the Civic Centre. The building was designed by the City Architect, Mr H J W Stirling, and constructed by Messrs Richard Costain (Construction) Limited.  It was officially opened by the Right Honourable Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning PC, on Tuesday April 16th 1963.

The Assize Court and the Quarter Sessions were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced in January 1972 by the Crown Court.  A Circuit Judge or the Recorder continued to hear the cases.  The Crown Court met in the Law Courts in Armada Way, which became the Plymouth Combined Court.

Plymouth Magistrates' Court (formerly the Petty Sessions) in Saint Andrew's Street was opened by HRH the Prince Charles on Thursday July 12th 1979, in the presence of the Lord Mayor, Alderman Graham Jinks.  Readers familiar with pre-War Plymouth will know this as the site of Mumford's Abbey Garage.  The building was designed by Mr Tony Irish while the design of the internal layout was the work of the then Clerk to the Magistrates, Mr Cliff Moiser.