The courts of assize, or assizes (//), were periodic courts held around England and Wales until 1972, when together with the quarter sessions they were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a single permanent Crown Court. The assizes exercised both civil and criminal jurisdiction, though most of their work was on the criminal side. The assizes heard the most serious cases, which were committed to it by the quarter sessions (local county courts held four times per year), while the more minor offences were dealt with summarily by justices of the peace in petty sessions (also known as magistrates' courts).
The word assize refers to the sittings or sessions (Old French assises) of the judges, known as "justices of assize", who were judges who travelled across the seven circuits of England and Wales on commissions of "oyer and terminer", setting up court and summoning juries at the various assize towns.
Assize < Middle English assise < Old French assize ("session, legal action" – past participle of asseoir, "to seat") < Vulgar Latin *assedēre < Latin assidēre ("to sit beside, assist in the office of a judge") < ad + sedēre ("to sit").
Justices of the Court of King's Bench, justices of the Court of Common Pleas, and barons of the Exchequer of Pleas travelled around the country on five commissions, upon which their jurisdiction depended. Their civil commissions were the commission of assize and the commission of nisi prius. Their criminal commissions were the commission of the peace, the commission of oyer and terminer and the commission of gaol delivery.
By the Assize of Clarendon 1166, King Henry II established trial by jury by a grand assize of twelve knights in land disputes, and provided for itinerant justices to set up county courts. Prior to the enactment of Magna Carta 1215, writs of assize had to be tried at Westminster or await trial at the septennial circuit of justices of eyre, but the great charter provided that land disputes should be tried by annual assizes.
An Act passed in the reign of King Edward I provided that writs summoning juries to Westminster were to appoint a time and place for hearing the causes with the county of origin. Thus they were known as writs of nisi prius (Latin "unless before"): the jury would hear the case at Westminster unless the king's justices had assembled a court in the county to deal with the case beforehand. The commission of oyer and terminer, was a general commission to hear and decide cases, while the commission of jail delivery required the justices to try all prisoners held in the jails.
Historically, all justices who visited Cornwall were also permanent members of the Prince's Council, which oversees the Duchy of Cornwall and advises the Duke. Prior to the creation of the Duchy the Earls of Cornwall had control over the Assizes. In the 13th century Richard, King of the Romans, moved the Assizes to the new administrative palace complex in Lostwithiel but they later returned to Launceston.
Few substantial changes occurred until the nineteenth century. From the 1830s onwards, Wales and the palatine county of Chester, previously served by Court of Great Sessions, were merged into the circuit system. The commissions for London and Middlesex were replaced with a Central Criminal Court, serving the whole metropolis, and county courts were established around the country to hear many civil cases previously covered by nisi prius.
The Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873, which created the Supreme Court of Judicature, transferred the jurisdiction of the commissions of assize (to take the possessory assizes, that is to say, to hear actions relating to the dispossession of land) to the High Court of Justice, and established district registries of the High Court across the country, further diminishing the civil jurisdiction of the assizes.
- The Home Circuit contained Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Surrey. The lent assizes were held at Hertford, Chelmsford, Rochester (alternately with Maidstone), Horsham and Kingston, and were generally attended in that order. The summer assizes were held at Maidstone, Lewes and either Croydon or Guildford, and were generally attended in that order.
- The Midland Circuit contained Northamptonshire, Rutlandshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire. The assizes were held at Northampton, Oakham, Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Coventry and Warwick, and were generally attended in that order.
- The Norfolk Circuit contained Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. The lent assizes were held at Aylesbury, Bedford, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Bury St Edmund's and Thetford, and were generally attended in that order. The summer assizes were held at Buckingham, Bedford, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Bury St Edmund's and Norwich, and were generally attended in that order.
- The Northern Circuit contained Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland. The lent assizes were held at York and Lancaster, and were generally attended in that order. The summer assizes were held at York, Durham, Newcastle, Carlise and Appleby, and were generally attended in that order.
- The Oxford Circuit contained Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire. The lent assizes were held at Reading, Oxford, Worcester, Stafford, Shrewsbury, Hereford, Monmouth and Gloucester, and were generally attended in that order. The places at which the summer assizes were held, and the order in which they were generally attended, was the same, except that they were held at Abingdon instead of Reading.
- The Western Circuit contained Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, Devonshire, Cornwall and Somersetshire. The lent assizes were held at Winchester, Salisbury, Dorchester, Exeter, Launceston, Taunton and Bristol, and were generally attended in that order. The summer assizes were held at Winchester, Salisbury, Dorchester, Exeter, either Bodmin or Truro, and either Wells or Bridgewater, and were generally attended in that order.
Yorkshire was for a time removed from the Northern Circuit and placed on the Midland Circuit. The North-eastern Circuit was formed in 1876 and contained Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. By 1960, there were seven circuits. There was no longer a Home Circuit or Norfolk Circuit, and there was now a South-eastern Circuit, and a Wales and Chester Circuit. In 1972, the Midland Circuit and the Oxford Circuit were combined and became the Midland and Oxford Circuit.
Each of these circuits had its own bar and its own mess (also called a circuit mess or bar mess). The bar was composed of those circuit barristers who had joined the circuit and had been elected members of the mess. The mess was a society formed of barristers practising on the circuit.
The season of the assizes approached.
...he was on Wednesday brought before the magistrates at Ross, who have referred the case to the next Assizes
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- Cockburn, J S. A History of English Assizes, 1558-1714. Cambridge University Press. 1972.
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- John MacLean (historian), Parochial History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor, vol 1, 1872
- Baker, J H. An Introduction to English Legal History. Third Edition. Butterworths. 1990. Page 25.
- Mogg, Edward. "Circuits of the judges" in Paterson's Roads. Eighteenth Edition. London. 1831. p 712.
- "The Northern Circuit" (1915) 138 The Law Times 301
- O Hood Phillips. A First Book of English Law. Fourth Edition. Sweet & Maxwell. London. 1960. p 54.
- Christopher Hibbert and Edward Hibbert. The History of Oxford. MacMillan. 1988. Page 109. Google Books.
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- The Earl of Halsbury. The Laws of England. First Edition. Butterworth. 1908. Volume 2. Page 367.
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- "Circuit and Bar Messes" (1970) 56 ABA Journal 239
- Richard Meredith Jackson. Jackson's Machinery of Justice. Eighth Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1989. ISBN 9780521317672 Page 458.
- Allyson Nancy May. The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850. UNC Press. 2003. Page 134.
- The National Archives research guide: Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971
- The dictionary definition of assize at Wiktionary