CIRCUIT (Lat. circuitus, from circum, round, and ire, to go), the act of moving round; so circumference, or anything encircling or encircled. The word is particularly known as a law term, signifying the periodical progress of a legal tribunal for the purpose of carrying out the administration of the law in the several provinces of a country. It has long been applied to the journey or progress which the judges have been in the habit of making through the several counties of England, to hold courts and administer justice, where recourse could not be had to the king's court at Westminster (see Assize).
In England, by sec. 23 of the Judicature Act 1875, power was conferred on the crown, by order in council, to make regulations respecting circuits, including the discontinuance of any circuit, and the formation of any new circuit, and the appointment of the place at which assizes are to be held on any circuit. Under this power an order of council, dated the 5th of February 1876, was made, whereby the circuit system was remodelled. A new circuit, called the North-Eastern circuit, was created, consisting of Newcastle and Durham taken out of the old Northern circuit, and York and Leeds taken out of the Midland circuit. Oakham, Leicester and Northampton, which had belonged to the Norfolk circuit, were added to the Midland. The Norfolk circuit and the Home circuit were abolished and a new South-Eastern circuit was created, consisting of Huntingdon, Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Chelmsford, Hertford and Lewes, taken partly out of the old Norfolk circuit and partly out of the Home circuit. The counties of Kent and Surrey were left out of the circuit system, the assizes for these counties being held by the judges remaining in London. Subsequently Maidstone and Guildford were united under the revived name of the Home circuit for the purpose of the summer and winter assizes, and the assizes in these towns were held by one of the judges of the Western circuit, who, after disposing of the business there, rejoined his colleague in Exeter. In 1899 this arrangement was abolished, and Maidstone and Guildford were added to the South-Eastern circuit. Other minor changes in the assize towns were made, which it is unnecessary to particularize. Birmingham first became a circuit town in the year 1884, and the work there became, by arrangement, the joint property of the Midland and Oxford circuits. There are alternative assize towns in the following counties, viz.: - On the Western circuit, Salisbury and Devizes for Wiltshire, and Wells and Taunton for Somerset; on the South-Eastern, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds for Suffolk; on the North Wales circuit, Welshpool and Newtown for Montgomery; and on the South Wales circuit, Cardiff and Swansea for Glamorgan.
According to the arrangements in force in 1909 there are four assizes in each year. There are two principal assizes, viz. the winter assizes, beginning in January, and the summer assizes, beginning at the end of May. At these two assizes criminal and civil business is disposed of in all the circuits. There are two other assizes, viz. the autumn assizes and the Easter assizes. The autumn assizes are regulated by acts of 1876 and 1877 (Winter Assizes Acts 1876 and 1877), and orders of council made under the former act. They are held for the whole of England and Wales, but for the purpose of these assizes the work is to a large extent "grouped," so that not every county has a separate assize. For example, on the South-Eastern circuit Huntingdon is grouped with Cambridge; on the Midland, Rutland is grouped with Lincoln; on the Northern, Westmorland is grouped with Cumberland; and the North Wales and South Wales circuits are united, and no assizes are held at some of the smaller towns. At these assizes criminal business only is taken, except at Manchester, Liverpool, Swansea, Birmingham and Leeds. The Easter assizes are held in April and May on two circuits only, viz. at Manchester and Liverpool on the Northern and at Leeds on the North-Eastern. Both civil and criminal business is taken at Manchester and Liverpool, but criminal business only at Leeds.
Other changes were made, with a view to preventing the complete interruption of the London sittings in the common law division by the absence of the judges on circuit. The assizes were so arranged as to commence on different dates in the various circuits. For example, the summer assizes begin in the South-Eastern and Western circuits on the 29th of May; in the Northern circuit on the 28th of June; in the Midland and Oxford circuits on the 16th of June; in the North-Eastern circuit on the 6th of July; in the North Wales circuit on the 7th of July; and in the South Wales circuit on the 11th of July. Again, there has been a continuous development of what may be called the single-judge system. In the early days of the new order the members of the court of appeal and the judges of the chancery division shared the circuit work with the judges in the common law division. This did not prove to be a satisfactory arrangement. The assize work was not familiar and was uncongenial to the chancery judges, who had but little training or experience to fit them for it. Arrears increased in chancery, and the appeal court was shorn of much of its strength for a considerable part of the year. The practice was discontinued in or about the year 1884. The appeal and chancery judges were relieved of the duty of going on circuit, and an arrangement was made by the treasury for making an allowance for expenses of circuit to the common law judges, on whom the whole work of the assizes was thrown. In order to cope with the assize work, and at the same time keep the common law sittings going in London, an experiment, which had been previously tried by Lord Cairns and Lord Cross (then home secretary) and discontinued, was revived. Instead of two judges going together to each assize town, it was arranged that one judge should go by himself to certain selected places - practically, it may be said, to all except the more important provincial centres. The only places to which two judges now go are Exeter, Winchester, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Stafford, Birmingham, Newcastle, Durham, York, Leeds, Chester, and Cardiff or Swansea.
It could scarcely be said that, even with the amendments introduced under orders in council, the circuit system was altogether satisfactory or that the last word had been pronounced on the subject. In the first report of the Judicature Commission, dated March 25th, 1869, p. 17 (Parl. Papers, 1868-1869), the majority report that "the necessity for holding assizes in every county without regard to the extent of the business to be transacted in such county leads, in our judgment, to a great waste of judicial strength and a great loss of time in going from one circuit town to another, and causes much unnecessary cost and inconvenience to those whose attendance is necessary or customary at the assizes." And in their second report, dated July 3rd, 1872 (Parl. Papers, 1872, vol. xx.), they dwell upon the advisability of grouping or a discontinuance of holding assizes "in several counties, for example, Rutland and Westmorland, where it is manifestly an idle waste of time and money to have assizes." It is thought that the grouping of counties which has been effected for the autumn assizes might be carried still further and applied to all the assizes; and that the system of holding the assizes alternately in one of two towns within a county might be extended to two towns in adjoining counties, for example, Gloucester and Worcester. The facility of railway communication renders this reform comparatively easy, and reforms in this direction have been approved by the judges, but ancient custom and local patriotism, interests, or susceptibility bar the way. The Assizes and Quarter Sessions Act 1908 contributed something to reform by dispensing with the obligation to hold assizes at a fixed date if there is no business to be transacted. Nor can it be said that the single-judge system has been altogether a success. When there is only one judge for both civil and criminal work, he properly takes the criminal business first. He can fix only approximately the time when he can hope to be free for the civil business. If the calendar is exceptionally heavy or one or more of the criminal cases prove to be unexpectedly long (as may easily happen), the civil business necessarily gets squeezed into the short residue of the allotted time. Suitors and their solicitors and witnesses are kept waiting for days, and after all perhaps it proves to be impossible for the judge to take the case, and a "remanet" is the result. It is the opinion of persons of experience that the result has undoubtedly been to drive to London much of the civil business which properly belongs to the provinces, and ought to be tried there, and thus at once to increase the burden on the judges and jurymen in London, and to increase the costs of the trial of the actions sent there. Some persons advocate the continuous sittings of the high court in certain centres, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Bristol, or (in fact) a decentralization of the judicial system. There is already an excellent court for chancery cases for Lancashire in the county palatine court, presided over by the vice-chancellor, and with a local bar which has produced many men of great ability and even eminence. The Durham chancery court is also capable of development. Another suggestion has been made for continuous circuits throughout the legal year, so that a certain number of the judges, according to a rota, should be continuously in the provinces while the remaining judges did the London business. The value of this suggestion would depend on an estimate of the number of cases which might thus be tried in the country in relief of the London list. This estimate it would be difficult to make. The opinion has also been expressed that it is essential in any changes that may be made to retain the occasional administration by judges of the high court of criminal jurisdiction, both in populous centres and in remote places. It promotes a belief in the importance and dignity of justice and the care to be given to all matters affecting a citizen's life, liberty or character. It also does something, by the example set by judges in country districts, to check any tendency to undue severity of sentences in offences against property.
Counsel are not expected to practise on a circuit other than that to which they have attached themselves, unless they receive a special retainer. They are then said to "go special," and the fee in such a case is one hundred guineas for a king's counsel, and fifty guineas for a junior. It is customary to employ one member of the circuit on the side on which the counsel comes special. Certain rules have been drawn up by the Bar Committee for regulating the practice as to retainers on circuit. (1) A special retainer must be given for a particular assize (a circuit retainer will not, however, make it compulsory upon counsel retained to go the circuit, but will give the right to counsel's services should he attend the assize and the case be entered for trial); (2) if the venue is changed to another place on the same circuit, a fresh retainer is not required; (3) if the action is not tried at the assize for which the retainer is given, the retainer must be renewed for every subsequent assize until the action is disposed of, unless a brief has been delivered; (4) a retainer may be given for a future assize, without a retainer for an intervening assize, unless notice of trial is given for such intervening assize. There are also various regulations enforced by the discipline of the circuit bar mess.
In the United States the English circuit system still exists in some states, as in Massachusetts, where the judges sit in succession in the various counties of the state. The term circuit courts applies distinctively in America to a certain class of inferior federal courts of the United States, exercising jurisdiction, concurrently with the state courts, in certain matters where the United States is a party to the litigation, or in cases of crime against the United States. The circuit courts act in nine judicial circuits, divided as follows: 1st circuit, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island; 2nd circuit, Connecticut, New York, Vermont; 3rd circuit, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania; 4th circuit, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia; 5th circuit, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas; 6th circuit, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee; 7th circuit, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin; 8th circuit, Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming; 9th circuit, Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. A circuit court of appeals is made up of three judges of the circuit court, the judges of the district courts of the circuit, and the judge of the Supreme Court allotted to the circuit.
In Scotland the judges of the supreme criminal court, or high court of justiciary, form also three separate circuit courts, consisting of two judges each; and the country, with the exception of the Lothians, is divided into corresponding districts, called the Northern, Western and Southern circuits. On the Northern circuit, courts are held at Inverness, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen; on the Western, at Glasgow, Stirling and Inveraray; and on the Southern, at Dumfries, Jedburgh and Ayr.
Ireland is divided into the North-East and the North-West circuits, and those of Leinster, Connaught and Munster.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)