United Kingdom

Jane Lambert
27 May 2010

Journalists, politicians and even some lawyers talks of “UK law” or refer to “British courts” usually when referring to the English legal system, but that is a solecism.   There is no such thing as British or UK law or a British or UK courts system.  There are in fact three legal systems in the UK, namely those of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Those who speak loosely of “British” or “UK” law usually mean the laws of England.

However, the UK is a legislative and political union.   Indeed, it was highly centralized until many responsibilities of government were devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 1998, the National Assembly of Wales by the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.  There remains a UK Parliament which continues to make statutes that apply throughout the UK, a Supreme Court that hears appeals from the highest courts of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and a number of administrative tribunals such as those of the Intellectual Property Office can sit anywhere in the UK and decide questions within their competence that take effect in all parts of the UK. Moreover, the courts of England and Wales consider and on occasions follow decisions of the superior courts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, particularly on legislation or points of law that are the same in each jurisdiction and vice versa.

Until the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was established, the highest courts of England and Wales and Northern Ireland were known respectively as the Supreme Court of England and Wales and the Supreme Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland.  They were renamed by s.59 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 as the Senior Courts of England and Wales and the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland.

Both the Senior Courts and the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland have original and appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters.    The court of first instance for civil claims is known as the High Court of Justice in both systems.   High Court judges are sit in three divisions, known as the Queen’s Bench Division, the Chancery Division and the Family Division respectively.  The court of first instance in criminal matters is known as the Crown Court.   The appellate court in both England and Wales and Northern Ireland is known as the Court of Appeal.   In England and Wales the Court of Appeal sits in Civil and Criminal Divisions.  The Civil Division hears appeals from the High Court and a number of other tribunals and the Criminal Division hears appeals from the Crown Court.

In both England and Wales and Northern Ireland there are a number of local courts of limited civil jurisdiction known as the county courts.    Appeal from the county courts lies to the Court of Appeal in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland there is a superior civil court of original and appellate jurisdiction known as the Court of Session and a superior criminal court known as the High Court of Justiciary.  The Court of Session consists of an Inner and an Outer House, the Inner House being the court of appeal and the Outer House the court of first instance.   There are also a number of local courts exercising civil and criminal jurisdiction known as the Sheriff Courts.   Appeals in civil matters lie to the Inner House of the Court of Session from the Outer House and the Sheriffs.

The Supreme Court hears civil and criminal appeals from the England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  It also hears civil but not criminal appeals from Scotland. However, some criminal issues can now be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which hears consists of many of the judges who sit in the Supreme Court.

A good place to find the decisions of all the courts of the United Kingdom is BAILII (the British and Irish Legal information Institute). UK statutes and judgments of the European Courts, the Court of Human Rights and the courts of the Irish Republic are also to be found there.

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