The crown did not appoint justices of the peace for Durham before 1536 as Durham was a palatinate or liberty under the bishop of Durham. While still subject to the king and the laws of the realm it had a measure of independence of jurisdiction, and the bishop could issue judicial writs in his own name. Like other liberties the Palatinate had its own local courts and the bishop, as its lord, appointed officers. A sheriff was appointed by the bishop during his pleasure, not merely annually, as were royal sheriffs, and held his county court every two or three weeks. This court retained its judicial importance after that in other counties declined.
Minor cases and every-day matters were the concern of the manorial or halmote courts. The bishop's chancery also had its court. To deal with more serious matters the bishop appointed justices who held sessions of assize and gaol delivery which dealt with most judicial matters and were held at Durham and Sadberge between three and five times a year (slightly more frequently than sessions of itinerant justices of assize in other parts of the kingdom). Assize rolls for 1235-36 and 1279-80 at the Public Record Office, London, have been printed (Surtees Society vol. 127, Miscellanea ed. K.E. Bayley 1916).
Thomas Langley (bishop 1406-1437) defended his privileges by claiming that 'he and his predecessors had the "liberty" of the county palatine, with their own chancery, exchequer and court where all pleas and assizes were taken, their own justices, sheriffs, coroners, escheators and other ministers such as the kings of England were wont to employ whenever need arose or for the execution of parliamentary statutes; the bishops of Durham issued their own original and judicial writs, held a county court, possessed their private mint, and were accustomed to grant their peace to subjects who submitted after being outlawed'.
The comprehensive local system of justice meant that there was less need for the appointment of local justices or keepers of the peace. The bishop appointed a few from time to time, particularly to enforce parliamentary statutes, as in other counties.
In 1345, the Bishop commissioned nine men to execute the statutes of Winchester, Northampton and Westminster in Durham. In 1369 when the king appointed commissioners in other counties to enforce the Statute of Labourers and act as commissioners of array, he sent a special writ to the bishop directing him to appoint similar officers in the Palatinate. In 1385 the bishop appointed five men to preserve the peace and execute the statutes of Winchester, Northampton and Westminster in the fairs and markets in Durham. This was entered on the Durham Chancery Roll and entitled commisio justitiarorum ad pacem which according to Dr. Lapsley was the first use of the term justices of the peace in Durham (PRO,Durham 3; Lapsley, County Palatine of Durham pp.178-9). Bishop Thomas Langley appointed a commission of the peace of ten members in 1410.
Other Durham commissions of the peace were issued regularly in the fifteenth century. These usually included the justices of assize, the sheriff (unlike commissions for other counties which did not include the sheriff during his year of office), other officers such as the receiver-general, the attorney-general to the bishop, the bishop's chancellor, and a number of local landowners, including the earl of Westmorland.
No records of the proceedings at sessions, if any, held under these early commissions are known to exist. Justices of the peace developed in importance more slowly in Durham than in some other counties because there were already local judicial officers.
In 1536 judicial supremacy in the Palatinate was transferred to the king by act of Parliament (27. Henry VIII c.24). Thereafter the king appointed officers and had sole power to issue writs and pardon offenders. Although the palatinate courts of chancery and pleas remained in existence they executed process in the king's name. Moreover royal justices of assize and gaol delivery visited the county two or three times a year to deliver the gaols. Commissions of the peace were issued by the king for the county of Durham as for other counties.
The continued existence of the sheriff's courts and other palatinate courts may still, however, have had some influence on the importance of quarter sessions. Some minor offences, which in other counties were dealt with by justices of the peace, were still heard by the sheriff's court. In 1650, for example, a certain Nicholas Hartley was prosecuted at the sheriff's tourn for brewing without a licence and was fined twenty shillings. In fact he had been granted a licence by three justices of the peace so it was ordered at the quarter sessions that he should be discharged of his fine. The latter order was recorded in the quarter sessions order book (Q/S/OB/4 p.51). No records of the sheriff's courts survive.
The County Palatine included the county of Durham, which was divided into four wards based on the four chief episcopal manors, Chester, Easington, Darlington, Stockton, and also the small wapentake or lordship of Sadberge, near Darlington. In addition there were parts of Northumberland, that is Bedlingtonshire, (north of the river Blyth and south west of Morpeth) and Norhamshire and Islandshire (the district round Norham, south of the river Tweed, and Holy Island). The manor of Crayke south of the Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire was also included. These outlying parts remained in the Palatinate until 1844. The bishopric also held other estates in Yorkshire, in Allertonshire and Howdenshire
The lordship of Sadberge was part of the earldom of Northumberland until 1189, when Hugh de Puiset, bishop of Durham, purchased it. The boundaries are now uncertain, but it included Hart, with Hartlepool, and the barony of Gainford. It was regarded as a separate lordship and had its own justices and sheriff, although usually the same men held the offices for the county and wapentake. After 1536 official documents still sometimes used the style 'the County Palatine of Durham and Sadberge'.
Each ward had its own coroner, an important financial officer, and other officers appointed by the bishop. The coroner of the wapentake of Sadberge was, however, a hereditary office tied to a holding of land. The ecclesiastical parishes in the Palatinate often covered a large area and were usually divided into administrative 'constabularies' based on townships.
The centre of the Palatinate was the city of Durham. The offices of the Palatinate chancery and exchequer and the court-room lay in the precinct of the Castle, on Palace Green between the Castle and the Cathedral. The gaol was in the gatehouse at the top of Saddler Street, leading to Palace Green and the Bailey.
After 1536 justices of the peace for Durham were chosen by the sovereign and his chancellor from amongst the leading gentlemen of the county and appointed by commission from the king. The bishop and his chancellor were, however, always included on the commission and the bishop acted as leading justice and custos rotulorum until the remaining privileges of the Palatinate were abolished in 1836 (6 William IV, c.19). Naturally many clergy of the diocese and cathedral were also included in the commissions of the peace so that the influence of the bishopric continued. The bishop or one of the diocesan officers sometimes took the chair at quarter sessions especially in the seventeenth century and some clergy were usually present. Only a small proportion of the commissioned justices were, in fact, active - regularly attending sessions and carrying out other duties. The average number of justices present at quarter sessions was twelve out of a commission of about forty in the seventeenth century or more on later commissions.
The existence of the Palatinate and bishopric may have influenced the range of matters dealt with by justices of the peace in quarter sessions. No cases of witchcraft have been noted, for example. These would have been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts. On the other hand many Roman catholic recusants were indicted before the justices of the peace, especially between 1660 and 1688.
Administrative orders were made at quarter sessions concerning the repair of bridges and highways, the maintenance of gaols, the poor law and many other matters. Constables, both high or chief (of the ward) and petty (of the parish or constabulary) had to attend sessions and were sworn in before the court.