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Gaspee Raiders
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Rhode Island courts, terms of court, and civil suits
before the American Revolution.

Rhode Island courts were rearranged in 1729 by the General Assembly into the following pattern. 

  • The lowest tribunal was the court of the Justice of the Peace.  Several were appointed for each county.   The Justice of the Peace had original jurisdiction in minor civil and criminal matters, and could bind over serious criminal offenders to the Court of General Sessions of the Peace.
  • The Court of General Sessions of the Peace existed in each county.  The Court of General Sessions was composed of at least five of the Justices of the Peace in the county .The Court of General Sessions  had jurisdiction of all criminal cases except capital crimes.  It also was the court of appeal of criminal offenses decided by the Justice of the Peace.
  • The general trial court was the Courts of Common Pleas, on the same level as the Court of General Sessions.  They had both original and appellate jurisdiction (from the Justice of the Peace) in civil matters.
  • The General Court of Trial, renamed the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery in 1746,  was originally composed of the governor, deputy governor, and the assistants (six of which were necessary to form the court for business).  By 1746, it was composed of a chief justice and four assistants,  who often retained posts in the legislature, which appointed them. (Assistants were roughly like a senator.)
  • The Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery was the appellate court from decisions of the Courts of General Sessions (criminal) and the Courts of Common Pleas   (civil)   It also had original jurisdiction in certain major cases, such as capital offenses.
  • Appeals could be made from the Superior Court to the General Assembly, and also sometimes were accepted by the King in Council in England.

In Rhode Island in pre-Revolutionary times, it was difficult to be a defendant in a civil case involving money damages.  Under many of the writs, the defendant would be imprisoned until the next term of court at which his/her case would be tried --- unless the defendant could put up the needed bail money to be let out until the next term of court.

The trial courts above the level of the justice of the peace courts could set their own times they would be in session and open for business.  The problem for those waiting for the next term of court was that Rhode Island tended to follow the English system for terms of court.  In England, in the 18th century,  there were  only four court terms in the year.   The trial courts were open only for: 

  • Hilary term, beginning on the 11th and ending on the 31st of January;
  • Easter term, beginning on the 15th of April, and ending on the 8th of May;
  • Trinity term, beginning on the 22d day of May, and ending on the 12th of June;
  • Michaelmas term, beginning on the 2d of November and ending on the 25th day of November.

The rest of the year was called "vacation"!

(This division of the English court year was not abolished, in England and for its colonies until the English Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875, which provide for a more convenient for litigants) arrangement of the terms and vacations.)