The Legal System of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK)
consists of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern
Some law applies throughout the whole of the UK; some applies in
only one, two or three countries.
This webpage describes law that applies either to the whole of the
UK, or to England and Wales. It does not cover law that applies
only to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Sources of UK Law
The four principal sources of UK law are legislation, common
law, European Union law and the European Convention on Human
Rights. There is no single series of documents that contains the
whole of the law of the UK.
Legislation is law that is created by a legislature. The most
important pieces of legislation are Acts of Parliament.
The principal legislature is the UK Parliament, which is based in
London. This is the only body that has the power to pass laws that
apply in all four countries. The UK Parliament consists of the
House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The House of Commons consists of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs).
Each MP represents a defined geographic constituency, whose
electors vote using a “first-past-the-post” system. Each elector
has one vote, and the candidate with the highest number of votes is
elected as MP for that constituency. In May 2011, a referendum will
be held on whether the voting system should change to an
Alternative Vote system. If this happens, the number of
constituencies will be reduced to 600.
The House of Lords consists of nearly 800 peers, of whom 600 are
formally appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime
Minister. The other members of the House of Lords are people who
have inherited aristocratic titles such as “Lord” or “Lady”, and
senior bishops of the Church of England.
The Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and National
Assembly for Wales each have the power to pass laws on devolved
matters: these laws apply only in the country in which they were
passed. Each of these legislatures has its own website.
The legal system of England and Wales is a common law one, so
the decisions of the senior appellate courts (see below) become
part of the law.
European Union Law
The UK is a Member State of the European Union (EU), which means
that EU law takes precedence over UK law.
The European Convention on Human Rights
As a Member State of the Council of Europe, the UK is a
signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The
Human Rights Act 1998, which came into effect in October 2000,
enables all the courts in the UK to protect the rights identified
in the ECHR.
How UK Law is classified
A distinction is made between public law, which governs the
relationship between individual citizens and the state, and private
law, which governs relationships between individuals and private
For practical purposes, the most significant distinction is between
civil law and criminal law.
Civil law covers such areas as contracts, negligence, family
matters, employment, probate and land law.
Criminal law, which is a branch of public law, defines the
boundaries of acceptable conduct. A person who breaks the criminal
law is regarded as having committed an offence against society as a
How Civil Law is enforced in England and Wales
A person who believes that another individual or organisation
has committed a civil wrong can complete a claim form and send it
to the appropriate court. The County Court, which is based at over
200 locations, deals with most claims involving less than £25,000
and claims for less than £50,000 that involve injury to a person.
The High Court, which is in London, hears most higher-value cases.
In the County and High Courts, each case is heard by a single
The person who starts a civil case is called a claimant, and he or
she has the burden of proving that, more probably than not, the
other party (the defendant) committed a civil wrong. If the
claimant is successful, the usual remedy is damages: a sum of money
paid by the defendant to the claimant. Other remedies, such as a
court order that prohibits a person from behaving in a certain way,
are available in some circumstances.
Either party to a civil case may appeal to a higher court against
How Criminal Law is enforced in England and Wales
A person who believes that a crime has been committed contacts
the police, who conduct an investigation. If, after arresting and
interviewing a person, the police believe that he or she committed
the crime, that individual is charged. A report of the case is then
sent to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
If the CPS believes that the case has a reasonable prospect of
success, and that it would be in the public interest to do so, it
will start criminal proceedings against the suspect, who becomes
the defendant in the case. In court, the CPS bears the burden of
proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the
Minor offences, such as speeding, are heard by Magistrates’ Courts.
Many towns in England and Wales have their own Magistrates’ Court,
where cases are heard by three magistrates. Magistrates do not need
any legal qualifications, and they are advised by a Clerk, who is a
qualified lawyer. Magistrates do not state reasons for their
Very serious offences, such as murder and rape, are heard in the
Crown Court. The Crown Court is based in about 90 centres
throughout England and Wales. A jury consisting of 12 people chosen
at random from the local population will decide, without giving
reasons, whether the defendant is guilty of the offence.
Usually a jury’s decision will be unanimous, but the judge may
decide that an 11:1 or 10:2 majority is sufficient. The jury is
advised about the law by the judge, whose role also includes
imposing a sentence if the defendant is found guilty.
Some intermediate offences, such as theft, may be tried in a
Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court.
The sentences available for criminal offences include fines
(payment of a sum of money to the state), imprisonment and
community punishments such as unpaid supervised work.
The Senior Appellate Courts of the UK
Appellate courts are those that only hear appeals from other
courts. The two most senior appellate courts are the Court of
Appeal and the Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal, which encompasses only England and Wales,
consists of a Civil Division and a Criminal Division. The Civil
Division hears appeals against decisions of the High Court, while
the Criminal Division hears appeals about alleged errors of law in
the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts. Cases are heard by three Lords
Justices of Appeal, each of whom reaches an individual decision
that may consist of a lengthy speech. The Court’s decision may be
reached either by unanimity or by a 2:1 majority.
Appeals from the Court of Appeal are heard by the Supreme Court,
which is the highest court in the UK. It hears civil appeals from
all four countries, and criminal appeals from England, Wales and
Northern Ireland. Permission to appeal to the Supreme Court will be
given only if a case raises a point of general public importance.
Cases are heard by five, seven or nine of the 12 Justices of the
Supreme Court, each of whom reaches an individual decision that may
consist of a lengthy speech. The Court’s decision may be reached
either by unanimity or by a simple majority.
Decisions made in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – and
the Supreme Court’s predecessor, the Appellate Committee of the
House of Lords – become precedents that must be followed by courts
in all future cases. This ensures that similar cases are treated
similarly, which many people regard as one of the most important
aspects of justice.