It is King Henry II (reigned 1154–89) who first instituted the early English custom of having judges ride around the countryside ('ride circuit') each year to hear legal cases on appeal. This obviated the need for appellants to travel to London, which made matters more convenient for the opposing parties (long distance travel at this time was often difficult), and encouraged litigants generally to continue pursuit of their cases at a higher level court in instances of suspected error or perceived injustice on the part of local judges. Upon return to London, these early 'circuit judges' would discuss their cases amongst themselves, often with the aim of formulating consistent patterns of response to the different types of legal problems commonly confronted by litigants across England and Wales. The result was promotion of a common and unified approach to the law within the Crown's dominion, thereby sowing the seeds for development of English common law over the course of the next few centuries.
The term 'circuit court' is derived from this early practice of having the King's judges ride around the countryside each year on established paths in order to hear cases. The term 'circuit', still in use today, came to denote the number of court venues served by judges of a certain (generally the lowest) appellate rank. Today, 'Circuit Judges' are senior judges in England and Wales who sit in the Crown Court, County Courts and certain specialized sub-divisions of the High Court of Justice, such as the Technology and Construction Court. The modern office of Circuit Judge was created by the Courts Act 1971. Circuit Judges sit below High Court Judges but above District Judges. They may be appointed to sit as Deputy High Court Judges. Some are also eligible to sit in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal, although they are the more senior Circuit Judges.
Formerly, there were six circuits in England and Wales, with jurisdictions covering the Midlands, the North of England, North-East England, South-East England, the West of England, and Wales & Cheshire (or 'Wales & Chester'). With the creation of HM Courts Service in April 2005, these original six circuits are now seven: the Midlands, North-East England, North-West England, South-East England, South-West England, London, Wales.
Before July 2008, Circuit Judges could only be drawn from barristers with at least 10 years' standing. Currently, the requirement is 7 years' standing in the case of barristers and 5 years' standing in the case of recorders. Although Circuit Judges typically retire at the age of 72, if desired, they may work until the age of 75.