It deals at first instance with all the most high value and high importance cases, and also has a supervisory jurisdiction over all subordinate courts and tribunals. Appeal from the High Court in civil matters lies to the Court of Appeal and thence to the House of Lords, except when the High Court is sitting as a Prize Court when appeal lies to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
The High Court is based at the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand, in central London. However, it also sits as 'District Registries' all across England and Wales and virtually all proceedings in the High Court may be issued and heard at a district registry. It is headed by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. By convention, all of its male judges are made Knights Bachelor, while all of its female ones are made Dames Commander of the British Empire.
The High Court is split into three main divisions: the Queen's Bench Division, the Chancery Division and the Family Division. The Supreme Court Costs Office is the part of the High Court that deals with legal costs and falls outside these divisions.
Most proceedings in the High Court are held before a single judge, but certain kinds of proceedings, especially in the Queen's Bench Division, are assigned to a Divisional Court (i.e. a bench of two or more judges).
Queen's Bench Division judges sit in the Crown Court, hearing criminal cases (as do Circuit judges and Recorders). In addition, the Divisional Court of the Division hears appeals on points of law from magistrates' courts and from Crown courts which have heard appeals from magistrates' courts. These are known as Appeals by way of Case Stated.
On behalf of the monarch, the Queen's Bench Division oversees all lesser courts and all government authority. Generally, unless other appeal processes are laid down in law, anyone who wants to challenge any decision of a lesser court, tribunal, government authority or state authority brings a claim for judicial review in the Administrative Court, a sub-division of the Queen's Bench Division. A single judge first decides whether the matter is fit to bring to the court (to weed out frivolous or unwinnable cases) and if so the matter is allowed to go forward to a full judicial review hearing with one or more judges.
The Family Division deals with matters such as divorce, children, probate and medical treatment. Its decisions may concern life and death and are perhaps inevitably regarded as controversial. For example, it permitted a hospital to separate conjoined twins without the parents' consent; and allowed one woman to have her life support machines turned off, while not permitting a husband to give his severely disabled wife a lethal injection with her consent. The High Court Family Division has jurisdiction to hear all cases relating to children's welfare and interest, and exercises an exclusive jurisdiction in wardship cases. The head of the Family Division is the President of the Family Division Sir Mark Potter. High Court Judges of the Family Division sit at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London, while District Judges of the Family Division sit at First Avenue House, Holborn, London.
The Family Division is comparatively modern, having been formed by the Judicature Acts by combining the Admiralty Court and probate courts into the then Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, or Wills, Wrecks and Wives as it was informally called. It was renamed the Family Division when the admiralty and probate courts were transferred to other divisions.
Historically, the source of all justice in England was the monarch. All judges sit in judgement on her behalf (hence why they have the royal coat of arms behind them) and criminal prosecutions made by the state are generally made on her behalf. Historically, local lords were permitted to administer justice in Manorial Courts and other ways. Inevitably, the justice administered was patchy and appeals were made direct to the King. The King's travelling representatives (whose primary purpose was tax collection) acted on behalf of the king to make the administration of justice more even. The tradition of judges travelling in set areas of the country or 'circuits' remains to this day, where they hear cases in the district registries of the High Court.