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Rural Justice in Old England: A Sabbatical in England

Rural England

In contrast to the established courts and courtrooms in London, justice was once delivered to the outlying rural areas of England by horseback. For example Cambridgeshire had three towns which hosted periodic courts called “assizes.”  The word “assize” refers to the sessions of the judges who traveled across the seven circuits of England and Wales, similar to the original concept of circuit courts in America. Abraham Lincoln was known to have traveled on such circuits during the time that he practiced law in Illinois. In England, these assizes were still active until they were abolished by the Courts Act of 1971, which replaced them with a single, permanent Crown Court.

These old assize courts were authorized by a commission of “Oyer and Terminer” (literally, to “hear and determine”), which authorized them to investigate through a grand jury and to hear the case by means of a petit jury (commonly known as a trial jury), similar to modern American criminal procedure. As an interesting historical aside, the governor of Massachusetts commissioned a court of Oyer and Terminer for the Salem witch trials in 1692.

While traveling through Cambridgeshire, I stopped at the old market town of Wisbech where, in the old days, the King’s Court would ride into town with judges, barristers, soldiers and horsemen, together with wives, children and many others to administer justice, which was often summary and brutal. The departure of the Court was celebrated in the Market Place with a feast!