The courts of assize, or assizes (/əˈsaɪzɪz/), 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 gaol delivery required the justices to try all prisoners held in the gaols.
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.
In 1956 the Crown Court was set up in Liverpool and Manchester, replacing the assizes and quarter sessions. This was extended nationwide in 1972 following the recommendations of a royal commission.
From 1293, there were four circuits. In 1328, these circuits were reorganized into six circuits. By 1831:
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 National Archives holds most of the surviving historical records of the assizes.
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
Deny me still and I shall have you straight from this room to Newgate, then in chains to Devon, for the next assize
The Bench was obviously doting (God send that there would be something tougher at the Assizes!)
In the middle of all this, the Earl of Northumberland was brought to his assize.