Origins of the Assize System
The origins of the system of assizes, based on regular journeys by the judges to groups of counties, with fixed stopping places at the more prominent towns, which was to continue down to the Courts Act 1971 and the creation of the Crown Court, can be traced to a number of features of royal justice during the 12th to 14th centuries. Nevertheless, the manner in which the justices of assize emerged as the supreme judicial authorities outside London was not necessarily intended or foreseen.
The appointment from the thirteenth century of local knights and members of the gentry as keepers of the peace (later justices of the peace), and the gradual transfer to them from the time of the Tudors of local administrative and judicial responsibilities, was accompanied by supervision of their activities by the justices of assize as agents of the Privy Council. This was particularly the case during the Elizabethan and early-Stuart periods by which time also the system of assizes, divided into six circuits in England and based on the Court of Great Sessions in Wales and Chester, effectively monopolised the higher sphere of justice outside London. Except in the counties palatine of Durham and Lancaster, under their respective clerks of the crown, the administrative work of each circuit was now formally under the control of a clerk of assize, though forbidden by the Justices of Assize, etc Act 1541 from acting as counsel within his own circuit. These clerks, who had assumed the duties of the clerks of the crown (now effectively separated from the clerks of the peace by an act of 1545) were the successors to those who, in earlier centuries, accompanied the judges on their circuits.
Functions of the Justices of Assize
In going on their circuits the formal business of the judges was regulated by the issue to them of five commissions: of the peace; of oyer and terminer; of general gaol delivery; of assize; and of nisi prius. Their extra-judicial supervision of local administration was much reduced following the Civil War. For much of the 16th and 17th centuries they were also involved in the religious and political manoeuvres of the crown. After the revolutionary settlement of 1689 their political influence was to decline, so that by the beginning of the 18th century their role was principally judicial. In this capacity they dealt with the more serious criminal cases including cases remitted to them from courts of quarter sessions by justices of the peace. With those courts they also dealt with actions against local authorities for failing to maintain their highways etc and they also heard civil causes referred to them from the central courts of common law at nisi prius.
The Assize System, 1830-1913
It was not until 1830 that there was any change in the organisation of the assize courts as they had existed for nearly 300 years. By the Law Terms Act of that year, the Court of Great Sessions was abolished and the Welsh counties and Chester were brought into the general circuit system. Shortly afterwards, by the Central Criminal Court Act 1834, the administration of justice in the metropolis and adjacent areas was unified in a newly-created Central Criminal Court, which took over the jurisdiction previously exercised outside the circuit system at the ancient Old Bailey and Guildhall sessions under criminal commissions for London and Middlesex. Under a further act of 1856 the Central Criminal Court could also hear cases outside its ordinary jurisdiction to ensure a fair trial where local prejudice existed or when, due to its frequent sessions, it could offer an early trial and so avoid the delay involved in waiting for the next assizes.
At the time of its creation the Central Criminal Court was also empowered to deal with offences committed on the high seas, previously tried at the Admiralty Sessions, and this power was extended to the justices of assize under the Admiralty Offences Act 1844.
Alongside the strengthening of the administration of criminal justice in London, mainly at the expense of the Home Circuit, the period also saw some reduction in the nisi prius business of assizes, partly on account of the greater accessibility of the capital from the provinces, due to better and cheaper transport, and partly as a result of the creation of County Courts, under the County Courts Act 1846. In 1863 minor changes were effected in the organisation of the circuits and further changes resulted from the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873. Under this act the jurisdiction of courts constituted under commissions of assize etc passed to the High Court of Justice and trials under such commissions in the counties palatine of Durham and Lancaster were thereafter dealt with in the same way as in the rest of England and Wales.
An order in Council of the 5 February 1876 reformed the assize circuits (details will be found below).
Further consequences of the Judicature Act of 1873 were the establishment of District Registries of the High Court of Justice (which handled, among other things, work in connection with assize cases heard at nisi prius), and the provision of a right of appeal in civil causes to the Court of Appeal. Criminal appeal remained limited until the establishment of a Court of Criminal Appeal under the Criminal Appeal Act 1907, which abolished the ancient writ of error in such cases and resulted in the demise of the Court for the Consideration of Crown Cases Reserved. The Court of Criminal Appeal sat for nearly 60 years until its existence as a separate body was ended by the Criminal Appeal Act 1966 which resulted in its jurisdiction passing to the Court of Appeal.
The Winter Assizes Acts of 1876 and 1877 and the Spring Assizes Act of 1879 made provision for prisoners awaiting trial in counties in which Winter and Spring assizes were not held to be tried in the sessions of neighbouring counties where they were, under the terms of orders in Council made to that effect.
In 1886 work in connection with the preparation of orders in Council etc for the holding of assizes passed from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor although the Home Office retained responsibility for dealing with petitions from convicted persons and for after trial calendars of prisoners.
Reforms of the System and its Abolition, 1913-1971
In 1913, 1923, 1933 and 1936 committees or commissions reported on the circuit system but although the two divisions of the North and South Wales Circuit were merged in a single circuit for Wales and Chester in May 1945 no major alterations took place until permanent Crown Courts were established at Liverpool and Manchester under the Criminal Justice Administration Act 1956 to deal with the criminal assize work for South Lancashire. These courts also took over the quarter sessions work in their cities. In 1961 an Interdepartmental Committee on the business of criminal courts recommended an extension of the principle of crown courts, and the new creations at Liverpool and Manchester marked the first moves in a process of wider reform. The recommendations of the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions 1966 to 1969 resulted in the abolition of courts of assize and quarter sessions and the establishment of a new Crown Court as part of the Supreme Court of Judicature, under the Courts Act 1971.