A justice of the peace (JP) is a judicial officer of a lower or puisne court, elected or appointed by means of a commission (letters patent) to keep the peace. In past centuries the term commissioner of the peace was often used with the same meaning. Depending on the jurisdiction, such justices dispense summary justice or merely deal with local administrative applications in common law jurisdictions. Justices of the peace are appointed or elected from the citizens of the jurisdiction in which they serve, and are (or were) usually not required to have any formal legal education in order to qualify for the office. Some jurisdictions have varying forms of training for JPs.
In 1195, Richard I (“the Lionheart”) of England and his Minister Hubert Walter commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. They were responsible to the King for ensuring that the law was upheld and preserving the “King’s peace”. Therefore, they were known as “keepers of the peace”.
An act of 1327 had referred to “good and lawful men” to be appointed in every county in the land to “guard the peace”; such individuals were first referred to as conservators of the peace, or wardens of the peace. The title justice of the peace derives from 1361, in the reign of Edward III. The “peace” to be guarded is the sovereign’s, the maintenance of which is the duty of the Crown under the royal prerogative. Justices of the peace still use the power conferred or re-conferred on them since 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. The justices’ alternative title of “magistrate” dates from the 16th century, although the word had been in use centuries earlier to describe some legal officials of Roman times.
In the centuries from the Tudor period until the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the JPs constituted a major element of the English (later British) governmental system, which had been termed sometimes squirearchy (i.e., the dominance of the land-owning gentry). For example, historian Tim Blanning notes that while in Britain the royal prerogative was decisively curbed by the Bill of Rights 1689, in practice the central government in London had a greater ability to get its policies implemented in the rural outlying regions than could contemporary absolute monarchies such as France – a paradox due especially to JPs belonging to the same social class as the Members of Parliament and thus having a direct interest in getting laws actually enforced and implemented on the ground.
Being an unpaid office, undertaken voluntarily and sometimes more for the sake of renown or to confirm the justice’s standing within the community, the justice was typically a member of the gentry. The justices of the peace conducted arraignments in all criminal cases, and tried misdemeanours and infractions of local ordinances and bylaws. Towns and boroughs with enough burdensome judicial business that could not find volunteers for the unpaid role of justice of the peace had to petition the Crown for authority to hire a paid stipendiary magistrate.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 stripped the power to appoint normal JPs from those municipal corporations that had it. This was replaced by the present system, where the Lord Chancellor nominates candidates with local advice, for appointment by the Crown.
Until the introduction of elected county councils in the 19th century, JPs, in quarter sessions, also administered the county at a local level. They fixed wages, regulated food supplies, built and controlled roads and bridges, and undertook to provide and supervise locally those services mandated by the Crown and Parliament for the welfare of the county.
Women were not allowed to become JPs in the United Kingdom until 1919, the first woman being Ada Summers, the Mayor of Stalybridge, who was a JP (Ex officio) by virtue of her office. In October 1920 Ada was appointed a JP officially, alongside other pioneers like Miriam Lightowler OBE in HalifaxEmily Murphy of Edmonton, Canada, preceded her by some three and a half years.Now in the UK, 50% of JPs are women.
In special circumstances, a justice of the peace can be the highest governmental representative, so in fact ‘gubernatorial’, in a colonial entity. This was the case in the Tati Concessions Land, a gold-mining concession (territory) in the Matabele kingdom, until its annexation by the British Bechuanaland protectorate.
In Sri Lanka, Justice of the Peace (JP) is an honorary post, with authorization to witness and sign statutory declarations and affidavits. Persons appointed as a Justice of the Peace may use the post-nominal JP. Current appointments are made under the Judicature Act No 02 of 1978, by the Minister of Justice at his/her discretion by publishing a list in the Gazette and appointee taking oaths before a high court, district court judge or magistrate with registrar of the supreme court recording it. Any citizen of Sri Lanka can apply to the Ministry of Justice giving his or her credentials to be appointed as a justice of the peace. However, the applicant should be one who has served the public and carries out social service and should be of good standing. The President of Sri Lanka and his/her officers are ex officio justices of the peace. A justice of the peace, who is an Attorney at law can be appointed as an unofficial magistrate.
The post was introduced in the British colonial era, during which time appointments were made by the Governor until 1938, after which appointments were made by the Legal Secretary until 1947. After Ceylon gained its independence in 1948, appointments were made by the Governor General and the Minister of Justice. Justice of the Peace had the power to administer oaths and affirmations per the Courts Ordinance No. 1 on 1889 section 84 and they could formally appoint members of the public to act as special police officers in times of turmoil and riots. Since certain government officers were ex-officio justices of the peace, this allowed British colonial officers to appoint special police officers from the European planters in times of crisies such as the 1915 riots. The Village Councils Law (No. 6 of 1964) made the Chairman of the Village Council an ex officio justices of the peace for that village area.