Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Maiden Assize Definition:

Historically, a criminal court hearing at which no prisoner was sentenced to death, but more recently, a court hearing at which no prisoner was in jail awaiting trial on a criminal charge.

Hundres of years ago, in the travelling justice of England, an assize system, where there were no prisoners expected to be hanged as a result of that upcoming criminal assize, the local sheriff presented the justice with a pair of white gloves, the assize then being called a maiden assize. One article dated August of 1847:

"In consequence of there being no prisoners, nor business of any kind to transact at the last assizes for the county of Radnor, the high sheriff, Mr Henry Miles, had to present the judge, Mr Justice Cresswell, with a pair of white kid gloves, embroidered in gold, and which have been forwarded to his lordship; a similar event has not taken place for a considerable number of years in that county. His lordship remarked that it was the first time it had occurred to him since he had been on the bench....

"When an assize town has no calendar and the gaol (jail) contains no prisoner for trial it is an old custom that the judge puts on white gloves, and he and the grand jury congratulate each other upon
the maiden assize."'1

The tradition of white gloves, especially, and also of any mention of maiden assizes, seems to have died a natural death in the legal history of England.

maiden assize white glovesIn a letter he addressed to the chief justice of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario, justice R.A.F. Sutherland wrote, borrowing from sources he identified in his letter [that letter, dated June 14, 2004, is available as a PDF here]:

"With respect to the meaning of the term Maiden Assize and the venerable tradition of giving a circuiting High Court judge white gloves on such occasions … it is probable many law students will never witness some ancient customs still observed in our courts. Indeed if their practice is confined to the large cities in this province, is unlikely they will ever observe the ceremony of the white gloves on a maiden assize.

"A maiden assize was formally one at which no prisoner was sentenced to death, but in later years the term has been applied to an assize at which no prisoner is in (jail) awaiting trial on a criminal charge….

"It is ancient custom on a maiden assize, where there is no offender to be tried, for the sheriff to present the judge with a pair of white gloves."

REFERENCES:

  • NOTE 1: Pugsley, David, Exeter and the Western Circuit in the Nineteenth Century, 38 B. L. J. 55 (2006), at pages 68-69.
  • Sutherland, the Hon. R.A.F., letter dated June 14, 2004 addressed to the then-chief justice of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario, the Hon. Heather F. Smith [reproduced in its entirety as a PDF file here].

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