IF YOU see a line of judges sombrely dressed in black robes and white wigs with lawyers, also in black robes, marching into the East Queen Street Baptist Church this Sunday, fear not. They do this every year in a service known as the Assize Service.
It is a European tradition from the Middle Ages exported to the colonies from about the 17th century. On Sunday, September 30, at 10 a.m., members of the Jamaican judiciary, legal fraternity and other dignitaries will participate in the remaining vestige of this tradition.
The striking visual impact of this annual Assize Service may be an endangered tradition. This is because judges of the Court of Appeal last year abandoned their wigs during court sittings.
Local archival material about the historical origins and significance of the service does not come readily to hand. However, the Jamaican ceremony is based on the English custom. The Surrey History Centre and Kingston Crown Court in England report that the Assizes, which are courts held in the main county towns and presided over by visiting judges from the higher courts, were first established by Henry II (1154-1189).
According to the report, "The arrival of the Assize judges in a town was a very solemn occasion because the judges directly represented the power and authority of the Crown and could impose the death penalty which the justices of the peace who presided at the Quarter Sessions could not do."
The Assize Service marks the start of the Michaelmas term of the Home Circuit Court. Congregants, led by pastor of the East Queen Street Baptist Church, the Reverend Dr Roy Henry, will invoke God's blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice.
In this our 50th year of Independence, a special Assize Service is being planned under the theme 'Justice and Jubilee'. There will be worship through the arts including a special choir, 'Lawyers in Praise', and a dance by members of the legal profession. An exhibition highlighting aspects of the justice system and the legal profession will be mounted in the church hall. Souvenir programmes will contain written greetings from the governor general, the minister of justice, the chief justice, the opposition spokesman on national security and justice, the president of the Jamaican Bar Association and the president of the Advocates' Association. It will also contain a listing of some of the interesting legal milestones achieved over the past 50 years.
The public is invited to attend.