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.[1] 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").[2]


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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.

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.[6] 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.[8] 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.[9] In 1972, the Midland Circuit and the Oxford Circuit were combined and became the Midland and Oxford Circuit.[10][11]

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.[12][13][14][15][16]

Assize records

The National Archives holds most of the surviving historical records of the assizes.[17]

Literary examples

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.

My case was set for the last session of the Court of Assizes, and that session was due to end some time in June.

The public may not be aware that contrary to the judgements of other Courts, the Court of Assize is not bound to give the motives for its' decisions.

— What are the Bugles Blowing for? - Nicholas Freeling

Sri Lanka

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.[18][19]

See also

  • Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Assize" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Cockburn, J S. A History of English Assizes, 1558-1714. Cambridge University Press. 1972.


  1. ^ O Hood Phillips. A First Book of English Law. Fourth Edition. Sweet & Maxwell. London. 1960. pp 54 & 55.
  2. ^ "assize". Unabridged. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
  3. ^ Warren, W. L. (1973). Henry II. Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press. pp. 281–283. ISBN 0-520-02282-3. OCLC 724021. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
  4. ^ Pearse, Richard. Aspects of Cornwall's PastDyllansow Truran, Redruth, 1983, p52.
  5. ^ John MacLean (historian), Parochial History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor, vol 1, 1872
  6. ^ Baker, J H. An Introduction to English Legal History. Third Edition. Butterworths. 1990. Page 25.
  7. ^ Mogg, Edward. "Circuits of the judges" in Paterson's Roads. Eighteenth Edition. London. 1831. p 712.
  8. ^ "The Northern Circuit" (1915) 138 The Law Times 301
  9. ^ O Hood Phillips. A First Book of English Law. Fourth Edition. Sweet & Maxwell. London. 1960. p 54.
  10. ^ Christopher Hibbert and Edward Hibbert. The History of Oxford. MacMillan. 1988. Page 109. Google Books.
  11. ^ Lord Chancellor's Dept. Review of the criminal courts of England and Wales: Report. The Stationery Office. 2001. Page 285. Google Books.
  12. ^ The Earl of Halsbury. The Laws of England. First Edition. Butterworth. 1908. Volume 2. Page 367.
  13. ^ (1966) 76 The Listener 380 Google Books
  14. ^ "Circuit and Bar Messes" (1970) 56 ABA Journal 239
  15. ^ Richard Meredith Jackson. Jackson's Machinery of Justice. Eighth Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1989. ISBN 9780521317672 Page 458.
  16. ^ Allyson Nancy May. The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850. UNC Press. 2003. Page 134.
  17. ^ The National Archives research guide: Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971
  18. ^ "A Historic Injustice" In The Supreme Court - The Facts
  19. ^ The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
Assize of Clarendon

The Assize of Clarendon was an 1166 act of Henry II of England that began a transformation of English law and led to trial by jury in common law countries worldwide, and that established assize courts.

Prior systems for deciding the winning party in a case, especially felonies, included trials by ordeal, by battle, or by compurgation to an evidentiary model, in which evidence, inspection, and inquiry was made under oath by laymen, knights or ordinary freemen. After the Assize of Clarendon trial by jury developed, though some historians say beginnings of the jury system predate this act. The Assize of Clarendon did not lead to this change immediately; recourse to trial by combat was not officially rescinded until 1819, though by then it had fallen out of use.

The assize takes its name from Clarendon Palace, Wiltshire, the royal hunting lodge at which it was promulgated.

Assizes (Ireland)

The courts of assizes or assizes were the higher criminal court in Ireland outside Dublin prior to 1924 (and continued in Northern Ireland until 1978). They have now been abolished in both jurisdictions.

Assizes of Ariano

The Assizes of Ariano were a series of laws for the Kingdom of Sicily promulgated in the summer of 1140 at Ariano, near Benevento, by Roger II of Sicily. Having recently pacified the peninsula, constantly in revolt, he had decided to make a move to more centralised government. The assizes established the large Sicilian bureaucracy and sought to maintain the feudal system under strict royal control. It contained forty clauses that touched on all possible topics of contemporary legal concern: private property, public property, the church, civil law, royal finances, and the military. The work was advanced for its day, deriving its precepts not only from Norman and French, but also Muslim and Byzantine (especially Justinian) legal theories.

The first half of 1140 was spent by Roger in Palermo preparing the Assizes. They were certainly well-planned. Despite having written the legislation in his capital, in July, he traveled in state to Salerno, the capital of the duchy of Apulia, and thence to Abruzzi, where he examined the conquests of his sons: Roger and Alfonso. These men, now duke of Apulia and prince of Capua respectively, had consolidated Norman rule over the peninsula and made it possible for the great feats of legislation that year.

The Assizes affirm that the king is the only lawgiver in Sicily, that he is both judge and priest (as he holds the legatine powers from the pope), and all Sicilians were equal and under the same laws, whether Latin, Greek, Jew, or Muslim, Norman, Lombard, or Arab. It punished treason with death. It was also detailed in other crimes of violence: cowardice in battle, arming a mob, or withholding support from the king or his allies. Ecclesiastically, Christian heretics and apostates lost their rights. Bishops were excused from attendance at courts, though the king was granted override on this, as on everything, and there could be no appeals. Militarily, the knightly class was closed. Nobody could become a knight if had no knightly lineage. Finally, the assizes did not ignore the commoners and demanded that they be treated with justice and be burdened not unduly by their lords.Roger's final act at Ariano was the issuance of a low-quality coinage standard for the entire realm, the ducat, taking its name from the duchy of Apulia. The coin, mostly copper and some silver, not gold as in later issuances, rapidly grew in importance.

The Assizes survive in two manuscripts, slightly differing from one another, though what are omissions and what additions is unknown. These were found in 1856 in the Vatican archives and those of Monte Cassino.

The Assizes are the legislations promulgated by King Roger II of Sicily. Once his kingdom was consolidated he issued a series of laws, although it is unknown where or when he did this. It is presumed that the laws were issued around 1140, for it was only after this date that officials can be found all over the kingdom; before then they only appear sporadically.

At this time, Ariano was only an assembly of bishops and nobles and not a 'general assembly' in which all free men played a part. Important issues such as the military, obligations of vassals and the recognizance of the countries, and legislation was issued.

The Assizes survive in only two composite juridical manuscripts. The fullest text is that contained in Codice Vaticano Latino 8782, which can be dated back to the end of the twelfth century and which contains forty four assizes, as well as a prologue. The second the Codex 468 of the library of Montecassino dates from the first half of the thirteenth century. It transmits only an abbreviated version of the laws, although it also contains some additions and another seven assizes which are lacking in the Vatican manuscript.The Assizes provide the first example of territorial legislation based upon Roman (Justinaic) law, as "they precede, and were more important in practice than, the purely academic rediscovery of Roman law." Roger's recourse to the example of the Roman emperors is indicative how ambitious his intentions were. The Assizes touch on only some aspects of the law: ecclesiastical, public, marriage and criminal. Alongside them customary law remained in force, unless it actual contradicted what was in the Assizes. The reason for this was "because of the variety of different people subject to our rule." Therefore, the legislator was clearly very conscious of ruling over a multi-ethnic state; he respected the individual character of the various groups, although only insofar as this did not conflict with his overriding supervision.

Assizes of Jerusalem

The Assizes of Jerusalem are a collection of numerous medieval legal treatises written in Old French containing the law of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and Kingdom of Cyprus. They were compiled in the thirteenth century, and are the largest collection of surviving medieval laws.

Assizes of Romania

The Assizes of Romania (French: Assises de Romanie), formally the Book of the Usages and Statutes of the Empire of Romania (Venetian: Libro de le Uxanze e Statuti de lo Imperio de Romania), is a collection of laws compiled in the Principality of Achaea that became the common law code of the states of Frankish Greece in the 13th–15th centuries, and continued in occasional use in the Venetian Ionian Islands until the 18th century.

Before the Jury

Before the Jury (Italian title:Corte d'Assise) is a 1931 Italian crime film directed by Guido Brignone and starring Marcella Albani, Lia Franca and Carlo Ninchi. It was made at the Cines Studios in Rome. The film is a precursor to the later genre of Giallo films.

Black Assize of Exeter 1586

The Black Assizes is an epithet given to several outbreaks of "gaol fever" which struck various prisons and court-houses in England in the late 16th century and which caused the deaths of not only many prisoners awaiting trial but also the magistrates in the court buildings holding assizes.

Bloody Assizes

The Bloody Assizes were a series of trials started at Winchester on 25 August 1685 in the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor, which ended the Monmouth Rebellion in England.

There were five judges – Sir William Montague (Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer), Sir Robert Wright, Sir Francis Wythens (Justice of the King's Bench), Sir Creswell Levinz (Justice of the Common Pleas) and Sir Henry Pollexfen, led by Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys.

Over 1,000 rebels were in prison awaiting the trials, which started in Winchester on 26 August. The first notable trial was that of an elderly gentlewoman named Dame Alice Lyle. The jury reluctantly found her guilty, and, the law recognising no distinction between principals and accessories in treason, she was sentenced to be burned. This was commuted to beheading, with the sentence being carried out in Winchester market-place on 2 September 1685.From Winchester the court proceeded through the West Country to Salisbury, Dorchester and on to Taunton, before finishing up at Wells on 23 September. More than 1,400 prisoners were dealt with and although most were sentenced to death, fewer than 300 were hanged or hanged, drawn and quartered. The Taunton Assize took place in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle (now the home of the Museum of Somerset). Of more than 500 prisoners brought before the court on the 18/19 September, 144 were hanged and their remains displayed around the county to ensure people understood the fate of those who rebelled against the king.Some 800–850 men were transported to the West Indies where they were worth more alive than dead as a source of cheap labour (the novel Captain Blood, and the later movies based on it, graphically portray this punishment). Others were imprisoned to await further trial, although many did not live long enough, succumbing to 'Gaol Fever' (typhus), which was rife in the unsanitary conditions common to most English gaols at that time. A woman named Elizabeth Gaunt had the gruesome distinction of being the last woman burnt alive in England for political crimes.Jeffreys returned to London after the Assizes to report to King James, who rewarded him by making him Lord Chancellor (at the age of only 40), 'For the many eminent and faithful services to the Crown'. Jeffreys became known as "the hanging judge".After the Glorious Revolution, Jeffreys was incarcerated in the Tower of London, where he died in 1689. His death was probably due to his chronic medical history of kidney and bladder stones leading to an acute infection, kidney failure and possibly toxaemia.

Writing as recently as 1929, Sir John C. Fox said:

Even to the present day, the mothers of West Somerset control their unruly offspring by threatening to send for 'Judge Jeffreys'.

Chester Castle (parish)

Chester Castle is an area around the castle in Chester. It was historically an extra-parochial area and today remains a civil parish,

although with no inhabitants.

The parish is bounded by Castle Drive to the south, Grosvenor Street (the A483) to the west, and Castle Street and St Mary's Hill to the east. Apart from the castle/prison, the parish also includes the Crown Courts, County Hall, and the Cheshire Military Museum. In April-May 1966, the infamous Moors murders case was tried at Chester Crown Court (referred to as Chester Assizes in 1966).

It was part of the Chester Rural District, despite being in the middle of the city, and did not form part of Chester County Borough. This meant that County Hall was in the administrative county of Cheshire which it administered. The Local Government Act 1972 saw it become part of Chester District, along with the rest of Chester Rural District. Since April 2009 County Hall has been the headquarters of the Cheshire West and Chester Council.

In 1891 it had a population of 249, which had declined to 8 by 1971.

According to the 2001 Census it had no inhabitants at all.

Corte d'Assise

The Corte d'Assise (EN Court of Assizes) is an Italian court composed of two professional, stipendiary judges (giudici togati) and six lay judges (giudici popolari), who are selected from the people.

The Corte d'Assise has jurisdiction to try all crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 24 years in prison or more. These are the most serious crimes, such as terrorism and murder. Also enslavement, killing a consenting human being, and helping a person to commit suicide are serious crimes that are tried by this court. Penalties imposed by the court can include life sentences (ergastolo). The Corte d'Assise does not preside over cases involving attempted murder.

The prosecution is conducted by the Public Prosecutor (Pubblico Ministero). Decisions are made by giudici togati and giudici popolari together at a special meeting held behind closed doors, named Council Chamber (Camera di Consiglio), and the Corte d'Assise is required to publish written explanations of its decisions.

County town

A county town in Great Britain or Ireland is usually, but not always, the location of administrative or judicial functions within the county. The concept of a county town is ill-defined and unofficial. Following the establishment of county councils in 1889, the administrative headquarters of the new authorities were usually located in the county town of each county. However, this was not always the case and the idea of a "county town" pre-dates the establishment of these councils. For example, Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire but the county council is located at Preston.

The county town was often where the county members of Parliament were elected or where certain judicial functions were carried out, leading it to becoming established as the most important town in the county.

Some county towns are no longer situated within the administrative county. For example, Nottingham is administered by a unitary authority entirely separate from the rest of Nottinghamshire. Many county towns are classified as cities, but all are referred to as county towns regardless of whether city status is held or not. The term was also used historically in Jamaica.

European Assizes

The European Assizes was a one-time assembly of the European Parliament and the national parliaments of the member states of the European Union in Rome in 1990. Under the theme of "The future of the Community; the implications, for the Community and the Member States, of the proposals concerning Economic and Monetary Union and Political Union and, more particularly, the role of the national parliaments and of the European Parliament", it led to two declarations about the desirability of involving national parliaments more in the affairs of the European Union. There were 258 participants: 173 from the national parliaments and 85 from the European Parliament. The standing body which serves as the analogue to this one-time assembly is the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC).

Homicide Act 1957

The Homicide Act 1957 (5 & 6 Eliz.2 c.11) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It was enacted as a partial reform of the common law offence of murder in English law by abolishing the doctrine of constructive malice (except in limited circumstances), reforming the partial defence of provocation, and by introducing the partial defences of diminished responsibility and suicide pact. It restricted the use of the death penalty for murder.

Similar provisions to Part I of this Act was enacted for Northern Ireland by Part II of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966.

Judges' Lodgings, Monmouth

The Judges' Lodgings, located in Whitecross Street, Monmouth, south east Wales, is an eighteenth-century building, with earlier origins, on the edge of St James' Square. It has its origins as an early 16th-century town house, becoming the 'Labour in Vain' inn around 1756. It was in use as the Judges' Lodgings for the Monmouth Assizes before 1835, and as the Militia Officers' Mess in the 1870s. Today it is a private house, with modern mews cottages built into the rear. It is a Grade II listed building and is one of 24 blue plaque buildings on the Monmouth Heritage Trail.

Pendle witches

The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century. The twelve accused lived in the area surrounding Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials. One was tried at York Assizes on 27 July 1612, and another died in prison. Of the eleven who went to trial – nine women and two men – ten were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.

The official publication of the proceedings by the clerk to the court, Thomas Potts, in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, and the number of witches hanged together – nine at Lancaster and one at York – make the trials unusual for England at that time. It has been estimated that all the English witch trials between the early 15th and early 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions; this series of trials accounts for more than two per cent of that total.

Six of the Pendle witches came from one of two families, each at the time headed by a woman in her eighties: Elizabeth Southerns (a.k.a. Demdike), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle (a.k.a. Chattox), and her daughter Anne Redferne. The others accused were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Grey, and Jennet Preston. The outbreaks of witchcraft in and around Pendle may demonstrate the extent to which people could make a living by posing as witches. Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of the Demdike and Chattox families made against each other, perhaps because they were in competition, both trying to make a living from healing, begging, and extortion.

Quarter session

The courts of quarter sessions or quarter sessions were local courts traditionally held at four set times each year in the Kingdom of England (including Wales) from 1388 until 1707, then in 18th-century Great Britain, in the later United Kingdom, and in other dominions of the British Empire.

Quarter sessions generally sat in the seat of each county and county borough. They were abolished in England and Wales in 1972, when the Courts Act 1971 replaced them and the assizes with a single permanent Crown Court. In Scotland they survived until 1975, when they were abolished and replaced by district courts and later by justice of the peace courts.

The quarter sessions were named after the quarter days on which they met in England and Wales from 1388. These days were later settled as Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas sessions.

Samlesbury witches

The Samlesbury witches were three women from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury – Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley – accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft. Their trial at Lancaster Assizes in England on 19 August 1612 was one in a series of witch trials held there over two days, among the most famous in English history. The trials were unusual for England at that time in two respects: Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court, published the proceedings in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster; and the number of the accused found guilty and hanged was unusually high, ten at Lancaster and another at York. All three of the Samlesbury women were acquitted however.

The charges against the women included child murder and cannibalism. In contrast, the others tried at the same assizes, who included the Pendle witches, were accused of maleficium – causing harm by witchcraft. The case against the three women collapsed "spectacularly" when the chief prosecution witness, Grace Sowerbutts, was exposed by the trial judge to be "the perjuring tool of a Catholic priest".Many historians, notably Hugh Trevor-Roper, have suggested that the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries were a consequence of the religious struggles of the period, with both the Catholic and Protestant Churches determined to stamp out what they regarded as heresy. The trial of the Samlesbury witches is perhaps one clear example of that trend; it has been described as "largely a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda", and even as a show-trial, to demonstrate that Lancashire, considered at that time to be a wild and lawless region, was being purged not only of witches but also of "popish plotters" (i.e. recusant Catholics).

Shire Hall, Stafford

The Shire Hall is a public building in Stafford, England, completed in 1798 to a design by John Harvey. Formerly a courthouse, it housed an art gallery which closed to the public in July 2017. The court rooms and cells are preserved. The building, its interiors, and the associated street furniture were grade II* listed on 17 December 1971, when it was described as "One of the finest public buildings in Stafford".

Law Officers

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