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The Legal System of the United Kingdom

Introduction

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) consists of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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

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.

Common law

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 organisations.

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 whole.

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 judge.

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 the decision.

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 crime.

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 decisions.

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.