The assizes

The courts of assize - commonly known as the assizes - were courts held in the main county towns and presided over by visiting judges from the higher courts based in London.

Since the 12th century England and Wales had been divided into six judicial circuits which were the geographical areas covered by visiting judges.

Local assizes

This system of holding local assizes at the principal towns of each county remained the chief feature of the English system of justice until it was radically reformed in 1971.

At the assize courts judges conducted trials dealing with serious offenders such as murderers, burglars, highwaymen, rapists, forgers and others who came within the scope of capital crime. Court verdicts were returned by locally picked juries of 12.

Civil disputes

The assizes also dealt with civil disputes, such as entitlement to land or money. From the early 20th century they began to deal with divorce cases which had previously been restricted to the central courts in London.

The twice-yearly assizes brought justice to provincial towns throughout Britain, and saved litigants and jurors the trouble and expense of journeying to London. Until the later 19th century the system remained substantially unchanged.

Growing workload

Over the centuries Parliament had gone on adding to the volume of legislation by which the courts were regulated and conducted their business. By Victorians times, however, it was clear that reform was needed in order to cope with the growing workload.

External links

Assize records dating back to 1201 are kept at the National Archives