COUNTY COURT, in England, a local court of civil jurisdiction. The county court, it has been said, is at once the most ancient and the most modern of English civil tribunals. The Saxon Curia Comitatus, maintained after the Norman Conquest, was a local court and a small debts court. It was instituted by Alfred the Great, its jurisdiction embracing civil, and, until the reign of William I., ecclesiastical matters. The officers of the court consisted of the earldorman, the bishop and the sheriff. The court was held once in every four weeks, being presided over by the earl, or, in his absence, the sheriff. The suitors of the court, i.e. the freeholders, were the judges, the sheriff being simply a presiding officer, pronouncing and afterwards executing the judgment of the court. The court was not one of record. The appointment of judges of assize in the reign of Henry II., as well as the expensive and dilatory procedure of the court, brought about its gradual disuse, and other local courts, termed courts of request or of conscience, were established. These, in turn, proved unsatisfactory, owing both to the limited nature of their jurisdiction (restricted to causes of debt not exceeding 40s. in value, and to the fact that they were confined to particular places). Accordingly, with the view of making justice cheaper and more accessible the County Courts Act 1846 was passed. This act had the modest title of "An Act for the Recovery of Small Debts and Demands in England." The original limit of the jurisdiction of the new courts was £20, extended in 1850 to £50 in actions of debt, and in 1903 (by an act which came into force in 1905) to £100. Thirteen amending acts were passed, by which new jurisdiction was from time to time conferred on the county courts, and in the year 1888 an act was passed repealing the previous acts and consolidating their provisions, with some amendment. This is now the code or charter of the county courts.
The grain of mustard-seed sown in 1846 has grown into a goodly tree, with branches extending over the whole of England and Wales; and they embrace within their ambit a more multifarious jurisdiction than is possessed by any other courts in the kingdom. England and Wales were mapped out into 59 circuits (not including the city of London), with power for the crown, by order in council, to abolish any circuit and rearrange the areas comprised in the circuits (sec. 4). There is one judge to each circuit, but the lord chancellor is empowered to appoint two judges in a circuit, provided that the total number of judges does not exceed 60. The salary of a county court judge was originally fixed at £1200, but he now receives £1500. He must at the time of his appointment be a barrister-at-law of at least seven years' standing, and not more than sixty years of age; after appointment he cannot sit as a member of parliament or practise at the bar.
Every circuit (except in Birmingham, Clerkenwell, and Westminster) is divided into districts, in each of which there is a court, with a registrar and bailiffs. The judges are directed to attend and hold a court in each district at least once in every month unless the lord chancellor shall otherwise direct (secs. 10, 11). But in practice the judge sits several times a month in the large centres of population, and less frequently than once a month in the court town of sparsely inhabited districts. By sec. 185 of the act of 1888 the judges and officers of the city of London court have the like jurisdiction, powers, and authority as those of a county court, and the county court rules apply to that court.
The ordinary jurisdiction of the county courts may be thus tabulated: -
Subject matter. Pecuniary limit
Common-law actions, with written consent of both parties Unlimited.
Actions founded on contract (except for breach of promise of marriage, in which the county courts have no jurisdiction) £100.
Actions founded on tort (except libel, slander, and seduction, in which the county courts have no jurisdiction) £100.
Counter claims (unless plaintiff gives written notice of objection) Unlimited.
Ejectment or questions of title to reality £100 annual value.
Equity jurisdiction £500.
Probate jurisdiction £200 personalty
and £300 realty.
Admiralty jurisdiction £300.
Bankruptcy jurisdiction Unlimited.
Interpleader transferred from High Court £500.
Actions in contract transferred from High Court £100.
Actions in tort transferred from High Court Unlimited.
Companies (winding up), when the paid-up capital does not exceed £10,000.
There is no discoverable principle upon which these limits of the jurisdiction of the county courts have been determined. But the above table is not by any means an exhaustive statement of the jurisdiction of the county courts. For many years it has been the practice of parliament to throw on the county court judges the duty of acting as judges or arbitrators for the purpose of new legislation relating to social subjects. It is impossible to classify the many statutes which have been passed since 1846 and which confer some jurisdiction, apart from that under the County Courts Act, on county courts or their judges. Some of these acts impose exceptional duties on the judges of the county courts, others confer unlimited jurisdiction concurrently with the High Court or some other court, others, again, confer limited or, sometimes, exclusive jurisdiction. A list of all the acts will be found in the Annual County Courts Practice. A county court judge may determine all matters of fact as well as law, but a jury may be summoned at the option of either plaintiff or defendant when the amount in dispute exceeds £5, and in actions under £5 the judge may in his discretion, on application of either of the parties, order that the action be tried by jury. The number of jurymen impanelled and sworn at the trial was, by the County Courts Act 1903, increased from five to eight.
There is an appeal from the county courts on matters of law to a divisional court of the High Court, i.e. to the admiralty division in admiralty cases and to the king's bench division in other cases (sec. 120 of act of 1888). The determination of the divisional court is final, unless leave be given by that court or the court of appeal (Judicature Acts 1894). (See further Appeal.) In proceedings under the Workmen's Compensation Act the appeal from a county court judge is to the court of appeal, with a subsequent appeal to the House of Lords. In 1908 a Committee was appointed by the lord chancellor "to inquire into certain matters of county court procedure." The committee presented a report in 1909 (H.C. 71), recommending the extension of existing county court jurisdiction, but a bill introduced to give effect to the recommendations was not proceeded with.
See Annual County Courts Practice, also "Fifty Years of the English County Courts," by County Court Judge Sir T. W. Snagge, in Nineteenth Century, October 1897.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)