1902 Encyclopedia > Assize


ASSIZE or ASSISE (from assideo, to sit together; Old French, assire, to set, assis, seated), literally signifies a " session," but is, in fact, as Littleton has styled it, a nomen cequivocum, meaning sometimes a jury, sometimes the sittings of a court, and sometimes the ordinances of a court or assembly.

1. It signified the form of trial by a jury of sixteen persons, which eventually superseded the barbarous judicial combat; this jury was named the Grand Assize. The Grand Assize was abolished by 3 and 4 Will. IV. c. 27 ; but the term assize is still applicable to the jury in criminal causes in Scotland

2. In the only sense in which the word is not now almost obsolete, assize means the periodical session of the judges of the superior courts of Common Law, held in the various counties of England, chiefly for the purposes of gaol delivery and trying causes at Nisi Prius. Previous to Magna Charta (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 mart 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 county litigants by an Act, passed in the reign of Edward I., which provided that the writ summoning the juiy 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 West-minster 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 Boyal Commissions to hold the assizes are—(1.) General, (2.) Special The General Commission is issued twice a year to the superior courts of Common Law at Westminster, and two judges are generally sent on each circuit. It covers commissions—(1.) of oyer and terminer ; (2.) of Nisi Prius ; (3.) of gaol delivery ; (4.) of the peace. Special commis-sions are granted for inquest in certain causes and crimes.

3. Assizes, in the sense of ordinances or enactments of a court or council of state, are of considerable interest in our earlier economic history. As early as the reign of John the observance of the assisce venalium was enforced, and for a period of five hundred 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, <fec. Sometimes in city charters the right to assize such articles is specially conceded. Regula-tions of this description, though hostile to free trade, were beneficial in the repression of fraud and adulteration.

4. Assizes are sometimes used in a wider legislative connection by early chroniclers and historians,—the " assisse of the realme," e.g., occasionally meaning the organic laws of the country. In a still more extended sense, the "Assizes of Jerusalem" is the name given to the code of laws framed for the kingdom of Jerusalem at the instance of Godfrey of Bouillon, the Crusader.

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