Police Courts And The Public

In 1879, Parliament passed the Summary Jurisdiction Act, which came into force on the 1st of January, 1880.

The day before the Act came into effect, The Derby Daily Telegraph, in its edition of Wednesday, 31st December, treated its readers to a summary of some of the important changes that the Act would bring in:-


“Several important changes are made in the administration justice Petty Session Courts. The Small Penalties Act, 1805, is repealed, and consequently, the power given by that Act to order imprisonment in the first instance of non-payment of a fine under £5 abolished.

By section 5, a new scale of imprisonment applicable to all fine’ss, whether under or over £5, is fixed as follows:- Where the amount of the sum or sums of money adjudged to be paid by conviction does not exceed 10s. the period of imprisonment is not to exceed seven days; where it exceeds 10s. but is under £1, 14 days; where it exceeds £1 but not £5, one month; where it exceeds £5 but not £20, two months; and where it is over £20, three months; such imprisonment to be without hard labour, except where hard labour is authorised by the Act on which the conviction is founded.

Under section 4, the magistrates have the power to mitigate any statutory penalties, either by substituting fine for imprisonment, by reducing the amount of fine (if imposed in respect of a first offence) or the term of imprisonment, by imposing imprisonment without hard labour, by dispensing with an obligation to find sureties for keeping the peace, with any like statutory requirement.”


As it transpired, it wasn’t long before the Act had caused problems for the country’s justice system, and, as the end of 1880 approached, The Graphic, on Saturday, 27th November, 1880, published the following article detailing some of the problems that the new Act had caused, in particular in cases of drunkenness:-


“What Stephen Blackpool, in “Hard Times,” remarked of the world in general, is peculiarly applicable just now to the laws that affect to deal with drunkenness:- ” It is aw’ a muddle.”

Magistrates, Police Court subordinates, the police themselves, appear to be perplexed well-nigh to their wits’ end as to the application of certain clauses of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, and, meanwhile, inebriates, confirmed as well as occasional, are having an easy time of it.


It seemed a pity to interfere with a state of affairs that possibly had its faulty features, but which, on the whole, gave general satisfaction.

The individual, male or female, who was discovered in the public streets past self-control through alcoholic stimulants, used to be conveyed to the station-house, and then, the next morning, to the magisterial presence, where a fine meeting the requirement of the case was inflicted, or, if the accused were a notorious and incorrigible offender, he or she was sent to prison for a short time.

In this way, the most disagreeable portion of a magistrate’s daily duty was promptly disposed of. The “drunk and disorderly” cases cleared off the charge sheet, the more important business of the Court was proceeded with without interruption.

Women standing in the dock at court.
Charged At The Court.


It is different now, however.

Under the new Act, as soon as a person taken into custody for drunkenness has recovered therefrom, he can demand release on his own recognisances to appear the next day, and answer for his offence.

It is expected, of course, that he should give his correct name and address, but it is scarcely to be wondered at if, in order to escape the degradation of appearing in the dock of a Police Court, there are some who succumb to the temptation of substituting fiction for fact as regards these last particulars.

Nay, it appears on the testimony of the police themselves that this is a form of deceit frequently practised, and with success.


But it does not make a vast amount of difference anyway.

A person gives his name and address correctly, and is next day fined, say, ten shillings.

Under the Act, the said fine is recoverable by distraint on the goods and chattels, and so the offender is not detained. He is set free, and if he disregards the order of the Court it is at his peril.


But he has not much reason to shake in his shoes on this account, since no one seems to know whose business it is to enforce the distress warrant, and up to this time no one has been found so bold as to undertake the responsibility.

In the Worship Street district, a few days since, a woman failed to surrender to her recognisances, but appeared next afternoon in the dock, “drunk again,” and with the previous offence unexpiated.


Another serious inconvenience, brought about by the alteration, is that a magistrate may be troubled with drunk and disorderly charges intermittently throughout the whole day.

Prisoners on bail are not compelled to render themselves at any particular time.

They are lawfully at large until next day if they are let out overnight, and four o’clock will do as well as ten in the morning.

But the policeman, who has the case in hand, must be in attendance from the time the Court is opened, and, if the bailed one does not put in an appearance, the man’s day’s wages, which taxpayers have, of course, to provide, is wasted.

One way and another the new method can scarcely claim to be an improvement on the old.”


Interestingly, the Police Courts themselves were also coming under the scrutiny of The Graphic, and, on Saturday, 30th April 1881, the newspaper treated its readers to the delights of attending a Police Court as a spectator:-

“It may not be generally known that amongst the free exhibitions and entertainments for the people should be reckoned the Metropolitan Police Courts.

Illustration showing Currell appearing at Worship Street Police Court.
A View Inside Worship Street Police Court. From The Illustrated Police News 5th March 1887.


Every morning before ten o’clock, the time when the popular performance commences, the entrance to the part apportioned to the public is besieged by much such a mob, on a small scale of course, as that which swarms about the as yet unopened gallery door of a cheap theatre.

When the inner bolt is slipped there ensues a crushing and striving such as even the policeman on duty can scarce control, for nearly all those who struggle for admittance are of the “loafer” class – the pick and flower of the back-street population of the locality.

Perhaps it is on this account, and in order to discourage a “full house,” that the provision for an open Court is purposely made as uncomfortable as possible.


With one or two exceptions the space set apart for the public is not more than half-a-dozen times larger than the prisoner’s dock, and not so convenient, since in the latter there is generally a stool or a form, whereas the former affords only standing room, those who occupy it being so closely wedged together that anything in the way of headgear less compressible than a soft cloth cap must, as the owner holds it in his hands, be crushed flat as a pancake.

As regards the majority of the tribunals in question, it is a mere mockery to pretend that they are accessible during business hours to anyone.


At such Courts as Worship Street or Clerkenwell, the accommodation is not sufficient by half for the regular attendance of riff-raff even; and should a respectable person contrive to squeeze in with the first mob, he would soon be glad to escape from such unsavoury company.

It may be difficult to alter this satisfactorily until, as in Bow Street, new Courts are built in place of the old; but a little more care and discretion on the part of the door-keepers would be of some service.”