National Records of Scotland

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Justices of the Peace Records

Justices of the Peace Records

Early development

National Records of Scotland (NRS) hold some records of Justices of the Peace (JPs). JPs are local judges who deal with less important crimes. They were introduced into Scotland by James VI in 1587 to deal with 'crimes and defaults in the second degree', especially local disorders such as riot and feud. The office only established itself in Scotland in the years 1609-11 and although the present JP system can be said to date from 1661, JPs contributed little to the court system of seventeenth-century Scotland and were never as important as their English counterparts. They had limited powers and prestige, were disliked as an English invention and were overtaken by developments elsewhere in the Scottish legal system. 

1707 to 1975

The revival of interest in justices following the Union of Scotland and England in 1707 was due to the familiarity of the office to the ministers of the English-led government. Despite the abolition of heritable jurisdictions in Scotland in 1747, JPs continued to play second fiddle in the counties to the older office of sheriff - a situation that remains unchanged to this day. The JPs did enjoy some successes, particularly through the issuing of liquor licences from 1756 and the establishment of a nationwide system of small debt courts from 1795. The JP system, however, was voluntary, unpaid and seen as biased in favour of the justices' own interests. With the ending of justices' jurisdiction over poaching during the 1860s, the office went into decline and did not really revive until the twentieth century.

The District Courts (Scotland) Act, 1975

This Act brought the JP courts into a new system of district courts which also replaced the burgh police courts. The district courts deal only with criminal cases such as assault, breach of the peace, theft and road traffic offences. The records of the court are either held by the courts or by local authority archives in Scotland, which also hold some of the pre-1975 records of justices under license from the National Archives of Scotland.

Powers of the Justices of the Peace

JPs had civil court powers and administrative functions as well as criminal authority. Their civil duties included regulating the wages and contracts of servants and labourers up to the end of the eighteenth century, followed from 1795 by their heavy involvement with small debt courts.

Administratively, the justices were also involved in various activities, mainly the maintenance of roads and bridges, the banishment of vagrants and the establishment of standard weights and measures. Some duties such as special tax assessments and recruitment for the militia were usually carried out in conjunction with other county officials.

Criminal cases before the JPs include minor assault, breach of peace, irregular marriages, prostitution, riot, theft and the violation of laws relating to excise cases, liquor licensing, poaching, roads and (since 1932) juvenile court cases. As JPs were usually more concerned to reduce local expenditure than to incur it, they tended to fine rather than to imprison and the records of their criminal hearings are usually brief.

The arrangement of JP Records in NRS

The JP records for each county and city are normally arranged in the following order.

Section 1: Commissions of the peace, registers, lists of justices, oaths, etc

Commissions may be to single JPs or for all JPs for part or whole of a county or city. Oaths are usually of allegiance to the Crown and sometimes include the oaths of constables (Orkney, 1826-1867: JP34/1/1) who were the JPs' chief officials. The lists of justices include some deaths and resignations (City of Glasgow, 1930-1971: JP22/1/7).

Section 2: Minute books and records of quarter sessions

The quarter session minute books are the principal record of JPs. As justices often met when other county business was to be discussed, this section contains a broad range of material, some of which shades into other types of county business and some of which is comparable to papers found in the Miscellaneous section. There are membership lists of masonic lodges (Aberdeenshire, 1784-1801: JP26/2/2); a freeholders or electors' minute book (Lanarkshire, 1733-1774: JP16/2/19); minute books of visiting committees (Stirlingshire, 1878-1911: JP19/2/3); and a minute book of impressments for the army and navy (Perthshire, 1778-1795: JP20/2/6).

Section 3: Records of licensing courts

The records include applications, appeals, testimonials in favour of applicants and records relating to the type of premise licensed (such as a house, hotel or inn). Licensing records sometimes extend to applications for game licences (Midlothian, 1861-1925: JP4/3/107) or to premises allowed to hold explosives (Dumfriesshire, 1876-1889: JP12/3/5-6).

Section 4: Court books

'Court books' include petty sessions to try small crimes and juvenile courts to deal with young offenders. Such registers usually give the parties' names, the charge, the date of trial and sentence, standardly involving a fine or short spell of imprisonment. The small debt courts flourished from 1795 with authority to hear cases involving £40 scots, a limit raised to £8 sterling in 1825 but they were superseded by sheriff court small debt courts by the mid-nineteenth century. The crossover nature of the JP records is illustrated by a weights and measures court book (Midlothian, 1828-1851: JP4/4/110) and by fishing and game cases (Selkirkshire, 1840-1844: JP13/4/1) in the lists for these counties.

Section 5: Miscellanea

As its name implies, this section includes a diverse range of records. For example, the list for Sutherland (whose arrangement of records varies from most other courts) includes a militia list of 100 men [c.1745] (JP32/7/1) and payments for the killing of foxes and eagles in Strathnaver, Lairg, Farr, Reay and Skibo and elsewhere, giving the claimants' names, time and place of killing and animals' ages, 1769-1804 JP32/7/5. Other types of papers - by no means an exhaustive list - relate to: the JP clerk's letterbooks (East Lothian, 1827-1903: JP2/5/1-4); amendments to highways and bridges (Peeblesshire, 1670-5: JP3/5/2); excise case information (Inverness-shire, 1808-17: JP29/5/6); cess or land tax arrears, (West Lothian, 1804-9: JP15/5/1); and petitions of parents (City of Edinburgh, 1902 and 1920-44: JP35/5/3).

Types of JP sessions

Quarter sessions

The main meetings of JPs, the quarter sessions, were meant to take place on specified days every three months but as JPs usually wore several hats within their county, meetings were left to their discretion, which in practice meant the JPs often met when other types of county business were being transacted. Under an Act of Parliament of 1741 quarter sessions had to be held at the head burgh of a county.

General sessions

General sessions was the term given to any meeting of the quarter session that was postponed (these meetings were allowed to meet outside of the head burgh).

Special sessions

Meetings of the quarter sessions which were held for a special purpose.

Petty sessions

Petty or ordinary sessions were meant to deal routinely with minor crimes in their areas. After 1795, when JP small debt courts were established, the practice of holding petty sessions on a district basis within counties began to emerge. JP papers do not survive in great quantities and searching should not be an onerous task. Most justices were left to organise their meetings (known as sessions) as they saw fit. This means that the frequency of JP sessions varies from county to county. It also means that the principal entries relating to civil, criminal and administrative matters will usually be grouped together in the same volume rather than appearing in separate registers.

The key to searching the JP collection is to look through all the potentially relevant papers for the period you are researching, because (1) the JP records are often not in any strict order and (2) are generally not listed in detail. To take a single example, licensing cases for Peebles during 1758-1808 (JP3/2/4) are recorded in the minute books of the Peebles sessions and not in a separate licensing court record as became the normal practice in most Scottish counties, including Peeblesshire, during the nineteenth century (JP3/3/1). Occasionally, some JP records find their way into sheriff court collections: try the Miscellaneous section(s) first.

Location of JP Records in Scotland
NRS reference County/city Dates Repository
JP1 Kirkcudbrightshire 1726-1974 NRS
JP2 East Lothian 1751-1974 NRS
JP3 Peeblesshire 1656-1974 NRS
JP4 Midlothian 1708-1975 NRS
JP5 Banffshire 1769-1974
JP6 Dumbartonshire 1728-1975 Glasgow City Archives
JP7 Renfrewshire 1834-1974 NRS
JP8 Berwickshire 1835-1965 NRS
JP9 Nairnshire 1803-1975 NRS
JP10 Morayshire 1712-1978 NRS
JP11 Ayrshire 1838-1975
JP12  Dumfriesshire 1748-1973 NRS
JP13 Selkirkshire 1745-1973 NRS
JP14 Roxburghshire  1760-1975 NRS
JP15 West Lothian 1752-1975 NRS
JP16 Lanarkshire 1733-1973 NRS
JP17 Wigtownshire 1746-1974 NRS
JP18 Clackmannan 1753-1974 NRS
JP19 Stirlingshire
1831-1974 Stirling Council Archives
JP20 Perthshire 1708-1959 Perth and Kinross Archives
JP21 Kinross-shire
1738-1975 Perth and Kinross Archives
Glasgow 1893-1974 Glasgow City Archives
Dundee 1894-1974 Dundee City Archives
JP24 Angus 1857-1975 Dundee City Archives
Kincardineshire 1751-1974 NRS
JP26 Aberdeenshire 1741-1974 NRS
JP27es Aberdeen City 1899-1971 Aberdeen City Archives
JP28 Fife 1798-1974 NRS
JP29  Inverness-shire 1808-1975 NRS
JP30 Ross and Cromarty 1890-1974 NRS
JP31 Caithness 1634-1973 NRS
JP32 Sutherland 1740-1968 NRS
JP33 Shetland 1748-1962 Shetland Archives
JP34 Orkney 1658-1968 Orkney Library and Archives
JP35 Edinburgh 1613-1967 NRS
JP36 Argyll 1798-1975 NRS
JP37 Buteshire 1796-1975 NRS

Contact details for all Scottish archive services can be found in the directory of Scottish archives on the Scottish Archive Network website.

Further reading

'Guide to the National Archives of Scotland' (The Stationery Office, 1994), pages 163-167

Johan Findlay, 'All Manner of people: The history of Justices of the Peace in Scotland' (Edinburgh, 2000)

Ann E Whetstone, 'Scottish county government in the 18th and 19th centuries' (Edinburgh, 1981), Chapter 2