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What is an Assize?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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An assize is a session of a court, with the term usually being used in reference to high courts hearing serious crimes. This term can be used in reference to a specific type of court and legal system once widely used, and also more generally to seated juries and courts, as well as ordinances and judgments passed down by these courts. In some regions, regulatory agencies supervising weights and measures may refer to their work as “assizing” as well.

The origins of the assize lie in medieval England, when King Henry II issued a document creating a framework for trying people by jury. The assize, as the jury was known, traveled throughout England, hearing serious criminal cases and rendering verdicts. Versions of this system remained in place until the 1970s, when the Courts Act 1971 eliminated it and created the Crown Court for handling of criminal matters. However, this system can still be seen in France.

The original assize consisted of a group of landed members of the aristocracy who held commissions and moved between communities to hear cases referred to their court. Over time, the system evolved, with courts known as the Quarter Sessions hearing legal matters and referring serious criminal cases to the assize. The roaming court would set up in available facilities, hear the case, and render a decision. It created the framework for legal principles seen throughout the world today, including the right to a trial by jury and the beginnings of evidentiary standards.

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Today, the concept of the assize is antiquated in most regions of the world and the term has more generally come to mean any kind of sitting of court, rather than being used specifically to discuss a roaming criminal court. When courts issue decisions, these may also be referred to as assizes in some areas, depending on the legal terminology used in the region. The various ways this term is used are a reflection of shifting legal standards and practices.

People are most likely to encounter the assize in historical novels set in regions that used this court system. One advantage to the assize was the roaming nature of the court, which limited opportunities for favoritism and prejudice in the court, since the members of the court usually did not know the people involved in the case and were not overly familiar with the region. Today, judges and jurors are expected to recuse themselves if they are familiar with the case of the parties, in the interests of fairness.

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