The courts of assize, or assizes (/əˈszɪz/), 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.

Also in Belgium, there is a Court of Assize with its own characteristics. It is in trouble with the European Court of Human Rights according to the Taxquet Arrest[2], but as the Assize Court is included in the Belgian Constitution the existence is inevitable.


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").[3]


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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[9] 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.[10] In 1972, the Midland Circuit and the Oxford Circuit were combined and became the Midland and Oxford Circuit.[11][12]

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.[13][14][15][16][17]

Assize records

The National Archives holds most of the surviving historical records of the assizes.[18]

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.[19][20]

See also

  • 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.
  3. "assize". Unabridged. Retrieved 13 August 2011.
  4. 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.
  5. Pearse, Richard. Aspects of Cornwall's Past, Dyllansow Truran, Redruth, 1983, p52.
  6. John MacLean (historian), Parochial History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor, vol 1, 1872
  7. Baker, J H. An Introduction to English Legal History. Third Edition. Butterworths. 1990. Page 25.
  8. Mogg, Edward. "Circuits of the judges" in Paterson's Roads. Eighteenth Edition. London. 1831. p 712.
  9. "The Northern Circuit" (1915) 138 The Law Times 301
  10. O Hood Phillips. A First Book of English Law. Fourth Edition. Sweet & Maxwell. London. 1960. p 54.
  11. Christopher Hibbert and Edward Hibbert. The History of Oxford. MacMillan. 1988. Page 109. Google Books.
  12. Lord Chancellor's Dept. Review of the criminal courts of England and Wales: Report. The Stationery Office. 2001. Page 285. Google Books.
  13. The Earl of Halsbury. The Laws of England. First Edition. Butterworth. 1908. Volume 2. Page 367.
  14. (1966) 76 The Listener 380 Google Books
  15. "Circuit and Bar Messes" (1970) 56 ABA Journal 239
  16. Richard Meredith Jackson. Jackson's Machinery of Justice. Eighth Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1989. ISBN 9780521317672 Page 458.
  17. Allyson Nancy May. The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850. UNC Press. 2003. Page 134.
  18. The National Archives research guide: Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971
  19. "A Historic Injustice" In The Supreme Court – The Facts
  20. "The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka". Archived from the original on 2013-02-16. Retrieved 2017-05-04.
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