Origin of the Office
The part played by lay magistrates in the judicial system of England and Wales can be traced to the year 1195. Richard I in that year commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. They were responsible to the King for ensuring that the law was upheld. They preserved the "King's Peace", and were known as Keepers of the Peace.
The title Justices of the Peace derives from 1361, in the reign of Edward III. An Act of 1327 had referred to "good and lawful men" to be appointed in every county in the land to "guard the Peace". Justices of the Peace (referred to as magistrates in WYMCS) still retain (and occasionally use) the power conferred or re-conferred on them in 1361 to bind over unruly persons "to be of good behaviour". The bind over is not a punishment, but a preventive measure, intended to ensure that people thought likely to offend will not do so.
For the following 600 years, and continuing today, Justices of the Peace have undertaken the greater part of the judicial work carried out in England and Wales on behalf of the Sovereign. For most of that time - until the invention of our modern system of local government in the 19th Century - JPs also administered the country at a local level. They fixed wages, built and controlled roads and bridges, and undertook to provide and supervise locally those services thought by the Monarch and by Parliament to be necessary for the welfare of the country.
Commission of the Peace
The present work of Justice of the Peace is almost entirely judicial, but certain of their responsibilities e.g. for the licensing of the premises selling alcohol, are retained from the days when they were also regulators and administrators of the counties. On appointment a JP was (and still is) inscribed by name on the Commission of the Peace for the county concerned. It was as members of the Commission of the Peace that Justices became virtual rulers of England and Wales at local level, For centuries, those appointed to the Commission were either land owners or merchants of great substance, whose social position and economic power was so strong that their authority went undisputed. This is reflected in the fact that even today JP's hold no badge or certificate of appointment.
An Act of 1361 provided that JP's should meet to conduct local business four times a year. This was the origin of Quarter Sessions, which continued until replaced by Crown Courts in January 1972. Although they retained their original name for more than 600 years, many of them were in continuous session in the closing years of their long record.
'The Great Unpaid'
JP's are often referred to as 'the great unpaid'. In fact, under an Act of 1389 the early Justices received a 'subsistence allowance' of four shillings a day. This appears to have lapsed, presumably because for centuries most JP's were well-to-do landowners who would not bother about 'expense accounts'.
Tough on Poachers
As so many of these first JP's were landowners, it is not surprising that as early as 1389 the first Game Law was passed. The old JP's had the reputation of being tough on poachers; who were usually well known to those before whom they appeared.