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 Queen'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.
Justices of the Court of King's Bench travelled around the country on five commissions: of assize, of nisi prius, of oyer and terminer, and of gaol delivery. By the Assize of Clarendon of 1136, King Henry II established trial by jury by a grand assize of sixteen men in land disputes, and provided for itinerant justices to set up county courts. Prior to Magna Carta in 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.
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 of 1873, which created the Supreme Court of Judicature, transferred the jurisdiction of the commissions of assize (land disputes, etc.) 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.
- A history of the Assizes (http://catalogue.pro.gov.uk/DisplayCatalogueDetails.asp?CATID=16&CATLN=1&DTN=5)
In France and other countries working along the same system, Assize Courts (cour d'assises) use juries to judge the most serious crimes, such as murder or rape. It is chaired by a senior judge called the president of the court.
In France, the assize court has 9 jurors plus 3 professional judges on first instance, and 12 jurors plus 3 professional judges on appeal. For certain crimes (large-scale drug trafficking, terrorism, or other severe attempts on the security of the state), the court consists in 5 professional judges.
In Ireland the Assizes, modelled on the English system, were replaced in the early years of the Irish Free State by the Circuit Court system in accordance with the The Courts of Justice Act, 1924 (http://188.8.131.52/1924-10.html). As in England they heard only serious cases, and were arranged by the counties of Ireland.