Senior Courts

Jane Lambert
27 May 2010

The Senior Courts of England and Wales consist of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice and the Crown Court. The Court of Appeal is an appellate court. The High Court is a civil court and the Crown Court a criminal court of first instance.  The Senior Courts were formerly known as the Supreme Court of England and Wales. Their name was changed by s.59 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to avoid confusion with the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

The present day structure was created by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873 which merged the ancient courts of common law and equity.  The common law courts, such as the Court of Queen’s Bench, awarded damages (that is to say sums of money) to be paid by a wrongdoer to a party injured by such wrongdoing but they could not order the wrongdoer to stop his wrongdoing. By contrast, courts of equity such as the Court of Chancery could grant injunctions (orders to cease and desist from wrongdoing on pain of punishment for disobedience) but not damages. Thus, someone who had lost money in a business deal because another party had not done what he or she had promised could seek damages for that loss in the Court of Queen’s Bench. If the injured party wanted to stop the wrongdoing in future, he or she could seek an injunction in the Court of Chancery.  Because the remedies offered by those courts were suitable for different types of cases the judges and lawyers practising in those courts developed expertise in different types of case. Since damages were a suitable remedy for breach of contract and tort the Court of Queen’s Bench handled contract and tort claims. As the administration of estates and execution of trusts required the equitable remedies cases involving property went to the Court of Chancery.

Although the 1873 Act created a new court that could grant both common law and equitable remedies, Parliament wished to preserve the expertise that had been developed by the common law and chancery courts over the centuries.    Accordingly, the Act created a new Chancery Division for work that had previously been done by the courts of equity and a new Queen’s Bench Division for work that had previously been done by the common law courts. Judges from the courts of equity were appointed to the Chancery Division and judges from the common law courts to the Queen’s Bench Division. Many of the rules and practices of the old courts were preserved in the rules of the new Supreme Court (known as the “Rules of the Supreme Court”) which remained in force until 23 April 1999. The judges of the new Divisions were attended by barristers and solicitors who were familiar with the old rules and practices. Thus, there remain important distinctions between chancery and common law practice to this day.

Since it was inconvenient and expensive to bring prisoners for trial in London, the Queen’s Bench judges travelled to the places where prisoners were held and tried them there.  Whenever and wherever possible the judges would also hear claims that fell within the jurisdiction of the Court of Queen’s Bench. The sessions at which those trials were conducted were known as the “Assizes” and the itinerary between the Assizes were known as “Circuits”. Thus, the Northern Circuit covered Lancashire and Cumbria, the North-Eastern Circuit Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, the Wales and Chester Circuit Wales and Cheshire, the Western Circuit South-West England, the South-Eastern Circuit London and the South East and the Midlands and Oxford Circuit the rest of England. Over the years the volume of business conducted in such metropoles as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol and Cardiff required the Assizes in those cities to be more or less permanent. Local offices of the High Court were required to process the paperwork. These were known as District Registries.

Because the judges on circuit were judges of the Court of Queen’s Bench they could hear only claims for damages for breach of contract or tort outside London. Consequently, most chancery claims had to be heard in London. The only exceptions were the Palatinate Courts in Lancaster and Durham which conducted chancery business in North-West and North-East England until the Courts Act 1971 merged the Palatinate Courts with the Chancery Division.

The 1873 Act has been repealed and replaced several times. The Senior Courts Act 1981 (formerly the “Supreme Court Act”) consolidates the previous legislation.