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The Courts of Assize, or Assizes, were periodic criminal 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 heard the most serious cases, which were committed to it by the Quarter Sessions (local county courts held four times a 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 of the King's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice 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 assidre, to sit beside, assist in the office of a judge > ad- + sedēre to sit.[1]


Justices of the Court of King's Bench 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.[2] 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 (jails).

Few substantial changes occurred until the nineteenth century. From the 1830s onwards, Wales and the palatine county of Chester, previously served by Court of Grand Session, 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 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 Crown Courts were 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.


  1. ^
  2. ^ W.L. Warren, "Henry II," (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973)

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ASSIZE, or Assise (Lat. assidere, to sit beside; O. Fr. assire, to sit, assis, seated), a legal term, meaning literally a "session," but in fact, as Littleton has styled it, a nomen aequivocum, meaning sometimes a jury, sometimes the sittings of a court, and sometimes the ordinances of a court or assembly.

It originally signified the form of trial by a jury of sixteen persons, which eventually superseded the barbarous judicial combat; this jury was named the grand assize and was sworn to determine the right of seisin of land (see Evidence). The grand assize was abolished in 1833; but the term assize is still applicable to the jury in criminal causes in Scotland.

In the only sense in which the word is not now almost obsolete, assize means the periodical session of the judges of the High Court of Justice, held in the various counties of England, chiefly for the purposes of gaol delivery and trying causes at nisi prius. Previous to Magna Carta (1215) writs of assize had all to be tried at Westminster, or to await trial in the locality in which they had originated at the septennial circuit of the justices in eyre; but, by way of remedy for the great consequent delay and inconvenience, it was provided by this celebrated act that the assizes of mort d'ancestor and novel disseisin should be tried annually by the judges in every county. By successive enactments, the civil jurisdiction of the justices of assize was extended, and the number of their sittings increased, till at last the necessity of repairing to Westminster for judgment in civil actions was almost obviated to country litigants by an act, passed in the reign of Edward I., which provided that the writ summoning the jury to Westminster should also appoint a time and place for hearing such causes within the county of their origin. The date of the alternative summons to Westminster was always subsequent to the former date, and so timed as to fall in the vacation preceding the Westminster term; and thus "Unless before," or nisi prius, issues came to be dealt with by the judges of assize before the summons to Westminster could take effect. The nisi prius clause, however, was not then introduced for the first time. It occurs occasionally in writs of the reign of Henry III. The royal commissions to hold the assizes are - (I) general, (2) special. The general commission is issued twice a year to the judges of the High Court of Justice, and two judges are generally sent on each circuit. It covers commissions - (r) of oyer and terminer, by which they are empowered to deal with treasons, murders, felonies, &c. This is their largest commission; (2) of nisi prius; (3) of gaol delivery, which requires them to try every prisoner in gaol, for whatsoever offence committed; (4) of the peace, by which all justices must be present at their county assizes, or else suffer a fine. Special commissions are granted for inquest in certain causes and crimes. See also the articles Circuit; Jury.

Assizes, in the sense of ordinances or enactments of a court or council of state, as the "assize of bread and ale," the "assize of Clarendon," the "assize of arms," are important in early economic history. As early as the reign of John the observance of the assisae venalium was enforced, and for a period of Soo years thereafter it was considered no unimportant part of the duties of the legislature to regulate by fixed prices, for the protection of the lieges, the sale of bread, ale, fuel, &c. (see Adulteration). Sometimes in city charters the right to assize such articles is specially conceded. Regulations of this description were beneficial in the repression of fraud and adulteration. Assizes are sometimes used in a wider legislative connexion by early chroniclers and historians - the "assisae of the realme," e.g. occasionally meaning the organic laws of the country. For the "assizes of Jerusalem" see Crusades.

The term assize, originally applying to an assembly or court, became transferred to actions before the court or the writs by which they were instituted. The following are the more important.

Assize of darrien presentment, or last presentation, was a writ directed to the sheriff to summon an assize or jury to enquire who was the last patron that presented to a church then vacant, of which the plaintiff complained that he was deforced or unlawfully deprived by the defendant. It was abolished in 1833 and the action of quare impedit substituted. But by the Common Law Procedure Act 1860, no quare impedit can be brought, so that an action in the king's bench of the High Court was substituted for it.

Assize of mort d'ancestor was a writ which lay where a plaintiff complained of an "abatement" or entry upon his freehold, effected by a stranger on the death of the plaintiff's father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, &c. It was abolished in 1833.

Assize of novel disseisin was an action to recover lands of which the plaintiff had been "disseised" or dispossessed. It was abolished in 1833. See Pollock and Maitland, Hist. Eng. Law. Assize, clerk of, an officer "who writes all things judicially done by the justices of assizes in their circuits." He has charge of the commission, and takes recognizances, records, judgments and sentences, grants certificates of conviction, draws up orders, &c. By the Clerks of Assize Act 1869 he must either have been for three years a barrister or solicitor in actual practice, or have acted for three years in the capacity of subordinate officer of a clerk of assize on circuit.

==United States== There are no assize courts in the United States; it is not the custom for supreme court judges of the states to go on circuit, but the judges of the United States Supreme Court do sit as members of the United States circuit courts in the several states periodically throughout the year. These courts are not assize courts, but are federal as distinguished from state courts, and have a special and limited jurisdiction. In the several states the highest court is divided into departments, in each of which there are courts presided over by supreme court judges residing in that department, thus avoiding the assize court or circuitgoing system.

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