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Courts of Law: Britain

Updated on September 9, 2013

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British legal symbol
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Courts of Law - Britain

An overview of the court system in Britain.

All judicial systems around the globe were fashioned after England's own.

COURT, Also called COURT OF LAW, a person or body of persons, having judicial authority to hear and determine disputes in particular cases, civil, criminal, ecclesiastical, or military. The term Court also denotes the chamber, hall, building, or other place where such judicial proceedings take place.

The word Court originally meant simply an enclosed place, and still does in the architectural sense. Judicial tribunals were originally enclosures where the judges sat, while counsel, attorneys, and the general public had to remain on the outside of a bar; hence the expression "called to the bar" is used to apply to a lawyer newly qualified to practice. At first these enclosures were temporary structures in an open field; later, they became fixtures in a large room or hall, the courtroom.

In Europe, in the early Middle Ages, the judicial functions were not yet separate from the legislative and administrative functions. The king, or other ruler together with his chief councillors, sat in a meeting hall for the exercise of all these functions, and so the household of the ruler was called "the court". Since all judicial authority was derived from the ruler, his presence was assumed in all the specialized courts.

From the 12th century onward the increasing number of university trained civilians and canonists created a recognized legal profession, and the rise of the legal profession also determined the gradual separation of judicial from administrative functions.

English courts are divided by certain features which can be easily identified.

  • A first distinction is between courts trying criminal cases and courts trying civil cases.
  • A second distinction is made between the inferior courts, or courts of first instance, in which the first hearing of any judicial proceeding takes place, and the superior courts, or courts of appeal, in which the judgment of the first courts are brought under review.
  • The court of appeal is the main appeal court, whose decision may be reviewed by the House of Lords in important points of law.

In England and Wales, the court system is centered in London and consists of three divisions of both original and appellate jurisdiction, mostly in civil matters and only occasionally in criminal cases. These divisions are:

  • The Chancery Division, presided over by the lord chancellor or the vice chancellor and hearing cases involving administration of estates, mortgages, contracts, land sales, etc.
  • The Queens (or King's) Bench Division, presided over by the Lord chief justice and hearing cases involving contract or tort, and occasionally criminal matters.
  • The Family Division, headed by a president and dealing with marriage, adoption, wardship, and other family related matters.

The British Judicial System: Supreme Court of Judication consists of 3 parts: 1. Crown court (lower courts); 2. High Court of Justice (middle): and 3. The Court of Appeals (highest - just below the House of Lords).


A court system sitting in England and Wales and dealing largely with criminal cases. Created under the Courts Act of 1971, the Crown Court replaced the Crown Court of Liverpool, the Crown Court of Manchester, the Central Criminal Court in London (The old Bailey), and all the other old assize* and quarter session courts. From 1966 to 1969 a royal commission chaired by Richard Beeching (Baron Beeching), studied the feasibility of converting all the existing assizes and quarter sessions into a system of Crown Courts to meet the growing case loads across the nation, and the commissions recommendation became the Crown Act of 1971. *{Assizes: by definition: 1. A judicial inquest. 1a. An action to be decided by such an inquest, the writ of instituting it, or the verdict of finding rendered by the jury. 2. The former periodical sessions of the superior court in English counties for trial of civil and criminal cases. 2a. The time or place for holding such a court, the courts itself, or a session of it.}

The Crown Court hears trials on indictment, as well as sentencings and appeals from magistrates' courts. There are six court circuits:

  1. Southeastern (with London as the administrative center)
  2. Wales and Chester (with Cardiff as the center
  3. Western (Bristol)
  4. Midland and Oxford (Birmingham)
  5. Northeastern (Leeds)
  6. Northern (Manchester).

The Crown Court is governed under the directives of the lord chief justice, with the agreement of the lord chancellor.

The High Court of Justice:

At High Court, judges may sit in any division, administering both law and equity, although they are now usually assigned to specific work and divisions.

There are four sittings:

  • Michaelmas (from October 1 to December 21)
  • Hilary (from January 11 to the Wednesday before Easter)
  • Easter (from the second Tuesday after Easter to Friday before the spring Bank Holiday, the last Monday in may)
  • Trinity (from the second Tuesday after the spring holiday to July 31)

The High Court is the second part of the Supreme Court of Judicature ranking immediately below the Court of Appeal and above the Crown Court.

The Court of Appeals:

In England and Wales, the highest court below the House of Lords, which sits as the final court of appeal in both criminal and civil matters.

The court is divided into two divisions: the Civil Division and the Criminal Division.

1. The Civil Division takes cases on appeal from the High Court of Justice and the county courts. Four members of its judiciary are considered ex officio (by virtue, or because of an office {the Vice President serves ex officio as president of the Senate}).

  • the lord chancellor (who is head of the Chancery Division of the High Court),
  • the lord chief justice (who presides over the Queen's (or King"a) Bench Division of the High court),
  • the president of the Family Division of the High Court, and
  • the master of rolls.
  • There are also 14 regular members who are called the lord justices of appeal.

2. The Criminal Division consists of a president (either the lord chief justice or a lord justice of appeal) and other High Court judges hearing the cases as "ordinary" members. Appeals may come from the High Court immediately below or from the Crown Court.

Appeals against a sentence of conviction may be brought on a point of law. Occasionally, with the permission of either the trial judge or the Court of Appeal, a question of fact may be entered, or a question of both fact and law may be permitted as the basis for an appeal.

The Court of Appeal may uphold the decision of the lower court; it may reverse it; or it may change the sentence. (However, the new sentence may not be more severe than the original.) Although the court rarely orders a retrial, it may do so in the interests of justice. The Court of Appeal may also act as an advisory body for the attorney general.

If the House of Lords refuses to hear an appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeal, that decision is final.

The House of Lords:

A brief overview follows. For More detail i have provided a link to the UK Official Web site for the House of Lords.

The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. It is independent from, and complements the work of, the House of Commons. Members of the Lords play a vital role making laws and keeping a check on government.

Often with long careers in public service, business, arts and culture, or another area of activity, Members of the House of Lords contribute their expertise and knowledge to Parliament and its work.

The Palace of Westminster has been a center of power for over 900 years.
Nobody set out to create Parliament. It developed naturally out of the daily political needs of the English King and his government. Nor did it develop continuously over time, but went through short periods of rapid growth.

Yet despite its unintentional and haphazard development, the modern British Parliament is one of the oldest continuous representative assemblies in the world. How did this happen? It is a story that involves revolt, war, invasion, several dethronings, and even Henry VIII's love life. (Too much information for the purpose of this article - perhaps in a future hub?)

All courts around the globe were fashioned after the courts of the United Kingdom, in varying degrees.

by: d.william 06/24/2011


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    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 6 years ago from Isle of Man

      It is not an iPad you need RealHousewife but a padded cell and one of those lovely jackets that have the sleeves tied at the back LOL!

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Who knows D. - it might be a very fun adventure! Think of the interesting people I might meet! Think of all the great hubs I could turn out:) can I have my iPad in jail? Lol

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 6 years ago from Isle of Man

      Wow, this is a very knowledgeable treatment of this subject and even though I live here you have taught me a thing or two. My father was a criminal lawyer and he studied for the bar in London where he met my mother who was studying to become a nurse. My father never prosecuted. Thank you for bringing back memories.

    • Apostle Jack profile image

      Apostle Jack 6 years ago from Atlanta Ga

      Very interesting.

    • d.william profile image

      d.william 6 years ago from Somewhere in the south

      Thanks for reading. Just thought i might try something new for a change. Hub pages has been complaining about the subject of some of my articles.

    • d.william profile image

      d.william 6 years ago from Somewhere in the south

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Lets hope you never have to find out about the law in that manner. L.O.L.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      A totally different topic for you, interesting, knowledge about the law is a good thing. Thank you.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Thanks D. Williams - now if I ever gomto jail in Britain - I'll surprise them because I'll know a thing or two! Lol. Interesting hub. Voted up;)