[Extracts from Court Houses and Market Houses of the Province of Ulster, by C E B Brett, published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 1973.]
It is a most curious reversal of history that the regulation of marketing, now regarded as a matter for free enterprise, was originally a closely-guarded prerogative of the crown; whereas the administration of justice, now a prerogative of the crown, was originally left largely to private enterprise. The market system in Ireland, as in most of Europe, grew up by means of royal grants of monopolies to individuals. These monopolies were valuable, by virtue of the right to levy tolls on all who brought goods to market; they were guarded with great jealousy. Whenever any grant of a new market or toll was solicited from the Crown it was necessary to inquire by a jury whether the grant would be prejudicial to the King or to the owners of neighbouring markets. Bracton, who died in 1268, says that a market will be a nuisance if set up within six and two-thirds miles of an existing market, because 'an ordinary day's walk may be taken at twenty miles, and, dividing the time into three portions, the morning will be used going to market, the middle of the day in buying and selling, and the other third part of the time in returning home. The right to hold a fair or market was accompanied by the right to conduct a Court of Pie-Poudre, at which the steward adjudicatcd on commercial disputes and disturbances arising in the market; the cases had to bc heard there and then; the court fees constituted a useful source of revenue for market owners.
...The court system in Ulster has changed greatly over the
past two centuries. Today, in Northern Ireland, the system comprises
the High Court jurisdiction in Belfast; the periodic Assizes held
by High Court judges in the county towns; the regular county courts;
and the petty sessions districts, where courts are presided over
by resident magistrates. The structure in the Republic is, for
all practical purposes, similar, although there the High Court
sits of course in Dublin and not in the counties of Ulster.
Before the great reforming Judicature Act of 1877 there were six ancient superior courts in Ireland, all with their seats in Dublin: Chancery, King's Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, Admiralty, and the Prerogative Court. To these had been added, as the nineteenth century progressed, the Court of Bankruptcy and Insolvency; the Landed Estates Court; and the Probate Court. The next layer down comprised the assistant barristers, first appointed in 1787 in disturbed areas, whose office gradually evolved so that a hundred years later they were renamed County Court Judges. Magistrates of police were first appointed, again in areas of disturbance, in 1814; by 1853 they had evolved into resident magistrates. Justices of the Peace, unpaid amateurs, were supposed, in Ireland as in England, to provide the groundwork of the system; but this did not work well, for too many of the gentry were absentees, and too many of the justices were licensees. So the nineteenth century saw a steady erosion of the powers of justices of the peace in favour of salaried magistrates. Until their abolition in 1859, a bewildering network of manor courts and courts baron dealt with the less important civil cases. Their authority derived originally from crown grants to landowners: like the right to hold markets, they went with the premises. In many instances, the original grants or letters patent had been lost or forgotten, and there was uncertainty as to the jurisdiction (both territorial and pecuniary) they conferred.
The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, published in three volumes in 1845, contains an excellent concise account of the legal system as it then existed. It also contains some interesting statistics. In 1841, the census enumeration of 'persons at and above 15 years of age, who ministered to justice,' exhibits: 29 judges, 69 stipendiary magistrates, 2 mayors, 16 sherrifs, 24 coroners, 14 seneschals, 754 barristers, 32 proctors, 2,572 attorneys, 24 clerks of the peace, 43 officers in courts of justice, 1 consular agent, 26 public notaries, 87 scriveners, 12 clerks of petty sessions, 147 law clerks, 3,806 excise and stamp officers, 33 civic officers, 9 inspectors of weights and measures, 9,721 constabulary and police, 1,398 bailiffs, 214 city constables, 6 town serjeants, 477 jailkeepers, 4 serjeants-at-mace, and 21 watchmen. This list poses some imponderable questions. For example, how on earth did 2,572 attorneys manage to conduct their business with only 87 scriveners and 147 law clerks - that is, one employee to every eleven solicitors - amongst the lot of them?
[The book describes in much more detail the workings of the market and court systems and the buildings associated with them, county by county].
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The High Court buildings, in Chichester Street, were provided by the British Government under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, and are an interesting study in the Recessional-Imperial style of British architecture. Stormont, completed in 1932 to designs by Sir Arnold Thornely, is notably more successful than the supreme court building completed in 1933 to designs by J.G.West of the Board of Works: it is interesting that both are much more satisfactory internally than externally. The High Court building presents a very grim and forbidding facade to Chichester Street; its failure is partly due to the obtrusive attic storey, partly to the lack of a pediment which would have served to subdue it. The front is of thirteen bays, the end bays projecting, the central three bays recessed to form a porch; the first three storeys are articulated by a row of giant Corinthian columns - at the porch, free-standing; at the outer projecting bays, coupled with pilasters; otherwise, engaged. These are very much as Lanyon would have had them, and the relationship with his original designs for the County Court House is intriguing, though almost certainly unconscious. But Lanyon would never have allowed so recessive an entrance; nor so very slab-like and unrelated an attic storey above the entablature. The entire exterior is of Portland stone - laboriously kept free of bird-droppings by men with scrubbers and hoses - with very heavy Gibbsian surrounds to the steel-frame windows on the ground floor.
Internally, the detailing is more satisfactory. The central hall, 140 feet long and 30 feet high, is panelled in travertine marble; articulated with composite pilasters; and has a coffered ceiling. The marble coats of arms at either end of the hall are carved with admirable clarity. In many ways, this is the best room in the city. The court rooms themselves, panelled in teak and floored with cork, are both impressive and practical - even comfortable. It is edifying to compare the Gothic and Perpendicular justice dispensed in Street's Law Courts in the Strand with the more Classical and Horizontal brand to be found here: there is no question that a different atmosphere imposes a somewhat different style.
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