The Northern Circuit dates from 1176 when Henry II sent his judges on circuit to do justice in his name. The Circuit encompassed the whole of the North of England but in 1876 it was divided. That part to the west of the Pennines retained the old name. The land to the east became the territory of the newly formed North Eastern Circuit. The two circuits have maintained strong links.
The Northern Circuit stretches from Carlisle in Cumbria at its northernmost point, running through Lakeland to the port of Whitehaven in the West, on through Preston and Burnley in Lancashire to Manchester, Liverpool and Chester.
In 1876, 62 members of the Bar had chambers on the circuit. There were 29 in Liverpool, 32 in Manchester and 1 solitary practitioner in Preston. Today the circuit has a membership of some 1100 barristers of whom about 77 are Queen's Counsel, practising from chambers in Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Chester. They follow on from a long line of Counsel who have become household names such as F. E. Smith (later to become Lord Birkenhead), Hartley Shawcross (Leading Counsel at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II) and George Carman.
There have been other Circuiteers who have attained fame outside the law – the author John Buchan, W. S. Gilbert and James Boswell, the biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Boswell was Junior of the Circuit. Since 1876 the Circuit which presently comprises 10 per cent of the Bar has produced the following judges:
- Lord Chancellors 3
- Law Lords 7
- Lord Chief Justices 3
- President of Queen's Bench Division 1
- Master of the Rolls 3
- Presidents, Probate, Divorce & Admiralty 5
- Lords Justice of Appeal 26
- Lady Justice of Appeal 2
- High Court Judges 89
During 2001, one Law Lord, three Lord Justices of Appeal (including the Vice President of the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division), one Lady Justice of Appeal and 12 High Court Judges were members of the Northern Circuit. In 1994, of the five female High Court Judges, four were Northern Circuiteers. Rose Heilbron QC was the first female High Court judge from the Circuit, 20 years earlier.
- Northern Circuit Directory 1876-2004 by His Honour David Lynch