The categories of people working in the Four Courts were manifold, and all had different tasks and needs.
At the very top of the 19th century Four Courts legal pyramid were the Irish judges, who determined matters of law and also presided over jury trials determining matters of fact (in the 19th century all disputes of fact in higher courts were decided by juries). You can see some of them caricatured arriving at the Four Courts in their elaborate robes and full-bottomed wigs below.
The head of the Irish legal system was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland (the premier judge in the Court of Chancery), with the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland (the premier judge in the Court of King’s Bench) coming next in precedence. There followed the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in Ireland and the Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer. All were assisted by junior judges also assigned to the relevant court.
There was also a Rolls Court run by the Lord Chancellor’s Deputy, the Master of the Rolls in Ireland. Later, there was an Admiralty Court, a Bankruptcy Court, an Encumbered/Landed Estates Court and a Probate Court. All of these had designated judges presiding over them.
The above system was changed by the Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Act 1877, which converted the original four courts of Chancery, King’s Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas into divisions of a single High Court of Justice. By 1897 the four divisions of the High Court of Justice had been reduced to two: Chancery and King’s Bench. The 1877 Act also created a Court of Appeal in Ireland
The creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was followed by the Courts of Justice (Ireland) Act 1924. This Act replaced the Court of Appeal in Ireland with a Supreme Court and a Court of Criminal Appeal. The High Court of Justice was replaced by a new High Court of the same name, but without divisions, and a Central Criminal Court took the place of the previous Assize jurisdiction of the High Court, which had involved High Court judges travelling outside Dublin to preside over trials for serious criminal offences.
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As in England, the legal profession in Ireland was divided into two branches, barristers and solicitors.
Solicitors (previously known as attorneys) dealt directly with the public. If the matter became litigious, the solicitor would retain a barrister – a different type of lawyer specialising in court advocacy – to draft proceedings and appear in court on the client’s behalf.
Barristers were easily recognisable from their distinctive horsehair wigs and stuff or silk gowns. A 19th century barrister started life as a Junior Counsel in a stuff gown and might, if they were successful in their career, ‘take silk,’ and become a King’s/Queen’s Counsel, appearing as leading counsel in the Superior Courts.
Unlike barristers in other jurisdictions, Irish barristers never grouped together to form chambers. Instead, they operated as sole practitioners, first from their own homes and later from a Law Library in the Four Courts, set up to provide them with on-site accommodation and legal assistance.
Most of the focus on this site is on barristers rather than solicitors, as they were the category of lawyer most closely linked to the Four Courts. However there were some stories about Irish solicitors which were so fascinating that they simply had to be included!
All courts in the Four Courts had various officials and staff linked to them. Registrars and clerks managed relevant court documents and assisted the judge in court. Tipstaffs carrying large staffs preceded each judge to court and assisted in keeping order in court. A court might also have a designated crier to call out the names of cases as they came up, although sometimes the tipstaff also performed this function. In addition, a courtkeeper, often female, was in charge of the cleaning and arrangement of each court.
Unfortunately, the lives of these other employees who kept the work of the Four Courts running smoothly are not as well documented as those of barristers and judges, but there are still a few very interesting snippets to be found!