Assize, a term of the common law, having reference to several distinct subjects. Its most general uses are to designate an ordinance for regulating the sale of provisions, and the periodical sittings held by the judges of England and law officers in the various circuits of England and Wales, for the trial of lawsuits as well civil as criminal. The term is of uncertain derivation. It may be either from Lat. assido, to assess, or assideo, to sit near or together, both of which are incident to the functions discharged at assizes. Suits for the recovery of land were anciently tried by writ of right, or of assize. On these occasions the sheriff impanelled four knights and twelve assistants to try the matters in dispute. This assize could only be held before a judge of the principal courts at Westminster, whereby enormous expense was entailed on the jurors, the parties, and the witnesses. To remedy this grave inconvenience, provision was made by Magna Charta that an assize should be held annually by a judge in each county. This declaration was enlarged by the statute of Westminster (13 Edward I., c. 3), which gave jurisdiction to the judges to sit in the grand assize, not only for the purpose of settling disputes as to land, but also for the adjudication of all civil actions.
The sittings thus held are familiarly known as sittings at nisi prius. This term originated from the form of the process for summoning and impanelling the jury, which, following the words of the statute of Westminster, directs the sheriff to summon a jury to be at Westminster on the first day of term, unless before (nisi prius) a judge shall come to try issues in the county. - The criminal jurisdiction of the court at the assizes is derived from a commission of oyer and terminer and general jail delivery. Courts for these purposes are held at each assize. Two assizes a year are held throughout England and Wales, and in the metropolitan and some other counties which comprise populous districts. Three assizes are held under modern statutes. Courts of quarter sessions are also held in the several counties, cities, and boroughs. The sessions despatch business of a quasi-judicial character, as ale-house licenses, poor-law questions, or appeals under certain statutes; and of late years, with a view of relieving the pressure of assize business, jurisdiction has been given to county magistrates sitting in sessions to decide certain criminal causes of minor importance.
Under the statute, the assizes are held by two judges of the superior courts of Westminster, one of whom usually presides in the criminal, the other in the civil court. All reserved points of law, exceptions, and other purely legal questions arising out of the proceedings at the trial, are argued subsequently at Westminster before the full court. Final judgment cannot be entered up until after the first four days of the term next after the assizes, which gives opportunity to move the court above for new trials, to set aside verdicts, or to stay judgment for any cause assigned. To obviate the evils of the delay thus afforded by common law, a recent statute gives discretion to the judge at nisi prius to certify for immediate execution, in all cases of simple contract debts. The bar at the assizes, or "upon circuit," as the more correct phrase is, is composed of the same barristers who argue at Westminster, each in his particular circuit, selected at the beginning of his career, and from which by etiquette he cannot deviate except in extraordinary cases. - Assize of Bread, or provisions (assisce venalium), in England, was the ordinance of a royal officer, or of the municipality, fixing the price and quality of bread, beer, meat, fish, coals, and other necessaries.
This was anciently fixed by the clerk of the market of the king's household. By some municipal charters this power was delegated to the corporation. The earliest distinct notice of such an assize bears date 1203. All regulations of the kind were abolished for London and its vicinity in 1815, and they have everywhere fallen into disuse. - Assizes of Jerusalem were the laws made in 1099 by Godfrey of Bouillon, and his princes and clergy, for the regulation of the kingdom of Jerusalem, formed in the first crusade.