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Assize Courts Building (now York Crown Court)
York Castle has been used to dispense 'justice' for almost 1,000 years. The Assize Courts Building in the inner-bailey was constructed between 1773 and 1777.
It was designed in the Palladian style by John Carr (a well-known and prolific local architect) to replace a much smaller courthouse known as the Grand Jury House.
'Assize Courts' to 'Crown Courts'
From the 12th century until 1972, assize courts were held periodically to hear cases considered too serious to be dealt with by the County Court system, especially cases likely to result in capital punishment or life imprisonment.
York's assize court heard cases from all parts of the county of York and the workload grew rapidly as the population soared during the industrial revolution. To accommodate the ever-increasing number of court sessions, John Carr's 1777 neoclassical style building was sympathetically extended both rearwards and sideways during the 19th century. During these works, the ground level of the bailey yard was lowered by approximately five feet and a low terrace incorporating a second flight of steps was added along the front of the assize court building. This rebuilding work was to have unforeseen ramifications in 2015 when a wheelchair-bound defendant was unable to gain access to the court building. Despite modern accessibility regulations, no ramped or level access had been installed and the wheelchair could not be safely lifted up the steps. In what is believed to be a first in modern English legal history, the case was heard in the open air at the bottom of the steps.
John Carr's building was extended again in 1937, when a two-storey range was added at the north end to accommodate the Keeper of the Courts.
The 1971 Courts Act replaced assize courts with Crown Courts and the building is now known as York Crown Court.
The webpages listed in the 'External Links' section (see below) provide a fascinating plain-English introduction to the English legal system and its evolution over the course of history.
A building rich in symbolism
Like many grand structures of the period, the facade of York's Assize Court Building is adorned with highly symbolic ornamentation.
- The triangular pediment above the central portico (see Image A4) contains a laurel wreath laid over a saltire cross formed from a fasces (an axe bound in a bundle of wooden rods) and a staff bearing the cap of liberty.
- The fasces symbolizes the power and jurisdiction of court officials exercising their duty. (In Latin, the prefix 'fas' means 'divine law'.) More literally, the axe was one of the tools used by executioners when carrying-out a death sentence. The wooden rods strengthen the shaft of the axe, so they indicate absolute power.
The staff too is a symbol of authority. In this case, it is topped with the cap of liberty, thereby showing that the court has the authority to set defendants free.
The cap of liberty - also known as a phrygian cap - is a soft, conical, brimless item of headwear that has been associated with freedom and liberty since antiquity. In ancient Rome, for example, slaves being given their freedom and granted Roman citizenship were given a soft felt cap called a pileus.
As the legal process can have either outcome (i.e. sentencing or freedom), the fasces and the staff are laid across one another forming a saltire cross.
The circular laurel wreath symbolises protection, unity and balance.
- Above the apex of the pediment, there is a stone figure representing Mother Justice (also known as Lady Justice - see Image B2). This has roots in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology and it is most closely related to Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice. On the assize courts building, she is depicted wearing a toga (a flowing robe) and holding a spear in her left hand and a set of scales in her right hand.
- The toga symbolises civilisation and philosophy;
- the spear symbolises the authority of the court and the force of law; and
- the scales symbolise balance, the need to consider both sides of an argument and to weigh-up competing claims. The scales also imply that justice needs to be a rational process, with the weight of evidence being used to tilt the verdict in favour of either guilt or innocence (as appropriate).
- The base of the pediment terminates beside a stone lion (see Image B1) and a stone unicorn (see Image B3). The lion is the symbol of England and the Unicorn is the symbol of Scotland. Together, they symbolise the United Kingdom. In heraldry, both of these creatures represent courage and strength. On the assize courts building, both of these creatures are depicted in a lying position, but they are alert with their heads held high. The heraldic term for this pose is 'couchant' and it symbolises "restful vigilance and conscious power". Both creatures are ready to attack or defend at a moment's notice and, rather unnervingly, they are both looking at the ground in front of the courtroom steps.
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