Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A reminder of times of old

Shire Hall, Appleby

On 1st January 1972, over 800 years of legal history came to an end with the establishment of the Crown Court of England and Wales.  This was one effect of the Courts Act 1971 - (the link is to the Act as originally enacted).   Since the 12th century, judges journeyed from London to preside at the Assizes in all the counties of England and Wales.  The Assizes tried the most serious cases such as murder.  Other courts with criminal jurisdiction were the Quarter Sessions and the Magistrates’ Courts (or Petty Sessions).  The Courts Act abolished courts of assize and quarter sessions and gave their criminal jurisdiction to the newly formed Crown Court.

Sir Basil Nield sat as a judge in all 61 of the Assize Court locations and, in 1972, his book “Farewell to the Assizes” was published.  Always assiduous in his work as a judge, Nield had an eye for the lighter side of life, in and out of court. This was the genesis of his book which offers a series of entertaining memoirs illustrated by his own line-drawings and photographs. It marked too his singular achievement as the only judge to have sat in all 61 Assize towns in England and Wales before the abolition of the Assize system in 1972.  The book captures the spirit of the old court system and the lawyers who practised in those courts.

Nield tells the story of several laymen, distinguished personalities in their own county, who in his early days as a barrister, sometimes presided at Quarter Sessions.  Nield was called to the Bar in 1925.  One such layman was the Earl of Lonsdale who sat in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria).   

Lonsdale had some difficulty summing up to a jury in a criminal trial and so he sought advice from Mr Justice Lynskey who set down on paper all the fundamental points which the Chairman should make in summing up.  At the next Quarter Sessions in Kendal, Lord Lonsdale read all the points loudly and accurately and his summing up was impeccable.  Having reached the end of Mr Justice Lynskey’s  invaluable note, Lonsdale took off his spectacles, looked long and hard at the jury and said, “That, members of the jury, is what these lawyers say. Now you listen to me”  Nield informs us that the Court of Criminal Appeal was constrained to point out the error!

The last Assizes held at Appleby was 1970 when the judge was Mr Justice Brabin.

Farewell to the Assizes – Sir Basil Nield CBE DL - Garnstone Press, London, 1972.  ISBN: 0 85511 280 8.


  1. Have a copy of *Farewell To The Assizes". Yes, a good memoir up to a point but unfortunately you can see even in such a light work how the Home Office was able to rig - er, manipulate - er, arrange that the Beeching ("The Other Beeching Report") recommendations for the absolutely essential reforms needed for the provincial lower and higher courts would result in unprecedented centralisation and control, to the detriment of Justice and The Law.

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