The Act received the Royal Assent on 12 May 1971 and abolished a number of ancient courts with effect from the end of that year.
What do you remember about the early 1970s? Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’? The three-day week? Whatever your memories the chances are that they don’t include the passing of the Courts Act of 1971, although this piece of legislation made seismic changes to the administration of justice in England and Wales.
These changes led directly to the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster ceasing to provide accommodation to touring judges. Prior to this major reorganisation, the more serious crimes which could not be tried in the magistrates’ courts – murder, manslaughter, robbery etc – were referred up to the Assize Courts which sat in the designated towns and cities three times a year. (‘Assize’ derives from the French assis meaning sitting or in session).
The judges who sat in the Assizes were of High Court rank and their arrival in Lancaster was a spectacle which once drew the crowds (and an assortment of street life and entertainment!). Once settled in JL, they would proceed in some pomp and ceremony up to the castle to begin work. This system was unable to meet the demand of ever rising caseloads and so the Courts Act replaced the Assizes with permanent Crown Courts in all the shires. Lancaster was increasingly being seen as too remote an outpost and it surprised few when Preston was nominated as the home for the new Crown Court serving Lancashire.
After 800 years Lancaster ceased to be an Assize town and JL ceased to host visiting judges. Nowadays (or in more normal times at least) a crown court does occasionally sit in Lancaster but operates as a satellite of Preston’s and with less senior judges. A few years after the final Lancaster Assizes in October 1971, the JL found a new purpose and became the museum it is today.
~ Garth Lindrup
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