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Petty Sessions handled the bulk of lesser criminal and civil legal proceedings. These were presided over by Justices of the Peace, who were unpaid and often lacked any formal legal training. Justices were usually prominent landowners or gentlemen. Justice was pronounced summarily at these courts – i.e. without a jury. Petty Sessions sat daily, weekly or monthly, depending on the volume of cases, and often saw controversial judgements. Every court had a clerk, whose job it was to record the details of each case in the registers.

There are now over 20 million records in the Irish Petty Sessions records. These include details of victims, witnesses and the accused, such as address, date in court, details of the offence, details of the verdict and the sentence.