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.
Middle English assise < Old French assise ("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").. The “courts of assize” were the English equivalent of the still existing French « Cours d'assise ».
Justices of the Court of King's Bench, those of the Court of Common Pleas, and barons of the Exchequer of Pleas travelled around the country on five commissions: 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 (or for) gaol delivery.
By the Assize of Clarendon 1166, King Henry II established trial by jury by a grand assize (sitting, in this case a jury) of twelve knights in land disputes, and itinerant justices to set up county courts. Before Magna Carta was passed (enacted) in 1215, writs of assize had to be tried at Westminster or await trial at the septennial circuit of justices in eyre. The great charter provided for land disputes to be tried by annual assizes.
From an Act passed in the reign of King Edward I (court-issued) writs summoned juries to Westminster in such a way as to appoint a time and place for hearing the causes there, stating the county of origin. Writs that used the words and form of nisi prius (Latin "unless before") meant the jury would hear the case at Westminster (on a longstop date) 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 and advises the Duke. Before the creation of the Duchy, the Earls of Cornwall had control over the assizes. In the 13th century Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, feted as '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 the 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 which had taken the writ action form of 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 the Home Counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Surrey. The Lent assizes were held at Hertford, Chelmsford, Rochester (alternately with Maidstone), Horsham and Kingston upon Thames, 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, Rutland, 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 Edmunds and Thetford, and were generally attended in that order. The summer assizes were held at Buckingham, Bedford, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich, and were generally attended in that order.
- The Northern Circuit contained Yorkshire, Lancashire, County Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland. 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, Carlisle 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, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. 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 Bridgwater, 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.
In Sri Lanka, periodic courts held around the island called "assize courts" presided over by a commissioner of assize to hear appeals and serious crimes of the locality. The appointment was made by the head of state and there were seven commissioners. Appointment as a commissioner of assize was considered a stepping stone to become a judge of the supreme court. The assize courts were replaced with the establishment of the Court of Appeal of Sri Lanka under the Judicature Act, No. 2, of 1978.
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