Her Majesty's Courts of Justice of England and Wales are the civil and criminal courts responsible for the administration of justice in England and Wales; they apply the law of England and Wales and are established under Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom does not have a single unified judicial system—England and Wales have one system, Scotland another, and Northern Ireland a third. There are exceptions to this rule; for example in immigration law, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal's jurisdiction covers the whole of the United Kingdom, while in employment law there is a single system of Employment Tribunals for England, Wales, and Scotland (but not Northern Ireland).
Its judicial functions were abolished by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873, but an election was held before the act came into force, and the new Parliament passed the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1875 which amended the first Act to preserve the House of Lords' judicial function. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 will transfer these functions to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The House is also the court of trial in impeachment cases, although impeachment in England is now obsolete.
The Supreme Court was created by the Judicature Acts as "Supreme Court of Judicature". It was renamed the Supreme Court of England and Wales in 1981. It is the most important superior court of England and Wales. It consists of the following courts:
When all the provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 come into force the courts comprised in the present Supreme Court of England and Wales will become known as the Senior Courts of England and Wales. This change is being made consequent to the establishment of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom by that Act.
The Crown Court is a criminal court of both original and appellate jurisdiction which in addition handles a limited amount of civil business both at first instance and on appeal. It was established by the Courts Act of 1971. It replaced the Assizes whereby High Court judges would periodically travel around the country hearing cases, and Quarter Sessions which were periodic county courts. The Old Bailey is the unofficial name of London's most famous Criminal Court, which is now part of the Crown Court. Its official name is the "Central Criminal Court". The Crown Court also hears appeals from Magistrates' Courts.
The Crown Court is the only court in England and Wales that has the jurisdiction to try cases on indictment and when exercising such a role it is a superior court in that its judgments cannot be reviewed by the Administrative Court of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court.
The Crown Court is an inferior court in respect of the other work it undertakes, viz. inter alia, appeals from the Magistrates’ court and other tribunals.
The most common subordinate courts in England and Wales are the
County Courts are local courts in the sense that each one has an area over which certain kinds of jurisdiction -- such as actions concerning land or cases concerning children who reside in the area -- are exercised. For example, proceedings for possession of land must be started in the county court in whose district the property lies. However, in general any county court in England and Wales may hear any action and claims are frequently transferred from court to court.
The Court Service administers the tribunals that fall under the direct responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. Tribunals can be considered the lowest rung of the court hierarchy in England and Wales.
In addition, there are many other specialist courts. These are often described as "Tribunals" rather than courts, but the difference in name is not of any great consequence. For example an Employment Tribunal is an inferior court of record for the purposes of the law of contempt of court. In many cases there is a statutory right of appeal from a tribunal to a particular court or specially constituted appellate tribunal. In the absence of a specific appeals court, the only remedy from a decision of a Tribunal may be a judicial review to the High Court, which will often be more limited in scope than an appeal.
Examples of specialist courts are:
The post of coroner is ancient, dating from the 11th Century, and coroners still sit today to determine the cause of death in situations where people have died in potentially suspicious circumstances, abroad, or in the care of central authority.
The Church of England is an established church (i.e.. it is the official state church) and formerly had exclusive or non-exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over marriage and divorce cases, testamentary matters, defamation, and several other areas. Since the nineteenth century, the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts has narrowed principally to matters of church property and errant clergy. Each Diocese has a 'Chancellor' (either a barrister or solicitor) who acts as a judge in the consistory court of the diocese. The Bishop no longer has the right to preside personally, as he formerly did. Appeals lie to the Arches Court (in Canterbury) and the Chancery Court (in York), and from them to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved (CECR). From the CECR appeals lie to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
There are two kinds of criminal trial: 'summary' and 'on indictment'. For an adult, summary trials take place in a magistrates' court, while trials on indictment take place in the Crown Court. Despite the possibility of two venues for trial, almost all criminal cases, however serious, commence in the Magistrates' Courts. It is possible to start a trial for an indictable offence by a voluntary bill of indictment, and go directly to the Crown Court, but that would be unusual.
A criminal case that starts in the Magistrates' Court, may begin, either by the defendant being charged and then being brought forcibly before Magistrates, or by summons to the defendant to appear on a certain day before the Magistrates. A summons is usually confined to very minor offences. The hearing (of the charge or summons) before the Magistrates is known as a "first appearance".
Offences are of three categories: indictable only, summary and either way. Indictable only offences such as murder and rape must be tried on indictment in the Crown Court. On first appearance, the Magistrates must immediately refer the defendant to the Crown Court for trial, their only role being to decide whether to remand the defendant on bail or in custody.
Summary offences, such as most motoring offences, are much less serious and most must be tried in the Magistrates' Court, although a few may be sent for trial to the Crown Court along with other offences that may be tried there (for example assault). The vast majority of offences are also concluded in the Magistrates' Court (over 90% of cases).
Either way offences are intermediate offences such as theft and, with the exception of low value criminal damage, may be tried either summarily (by magistrates) or by Judge and Jury in the Crown Court. If the magistrates consider that an either way offence is too serious for them to deal with, they may "decline jurisdiction" which means that the defendant will have to appear in the Crown Court. Conversely even if the magistrates accept jurisdiction, an adult defendant has a right to compel a jury trial. Defendants under 18 years of age do not have this right and will be tried in the Youth Court (similar to a Magistrates' Court) unless the case is homicide or else is particularly serious.
A Magistrates' Court is made up in two ways. Either a group (known as a 'bench') of 'lay magistrates', who do not have to be, and are not normally, lawyers, will hear the case. A lay bench must consist of at least three magistrates. Alternatively a case may be heard by a district judge (formerly known as a stipendiary magistrate), who will be a qualified lawyer and will sit singly, but has the same powers as a lay bench. District judges usually sit in the more busy courts in cities or hear complex cases (eg extradition). Magistrates have limited sentencing powers.
In the Crown Court, the case is tried by a Recorder (part time judge), Circuit Judge or a High Court judge, with a jury. The status of the judge depends on the seriousness and complexity of the case. The jury is involved only if the defendant pleads "not guilty".
From the Magistrates' Court, an appeal can be taken to the Crown Court on matters of fact and law or, on matters of law alone, to the Divisional Court of Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, which is called an appeal "by way of case stated". The Magistrates' Court is also an inferior court and is therefore subject to judicial review.
The Crown Court is more complicated. When it is hearing a trial on indictment (a jury trial) it is treated as a superior court, which means that its decisions may not be judicially reviewed and appeal only lies to the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.
In other circumstances (for example when acting as an appeal court from a Magistrates' Court) the Crown Court is an inferior court, which means that it is subject to judicial review. When acting as an inferior court, appeals by way of case stated on matters of law may be made to the Divisional Court of Queen's Bench Division of the High Court.
Appeals from the High Court, in criminal matters, may only go to the House of Lords. Appeals from the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) may also only be taken to the House of Lords.
Appeals to the House of Lords are unusual in that the court from which appeal is being made (either the High Court or the Court of Appeal) must certify that there is a question of general public importance. This additional control mechanism is not present with civil appeals and means that far fewer criminal appeals are heard by the House of Lords.
Under the Civil Procedure Rules 1998, civil claims under £5,000 are dealt with in the County Court under the 'Small Claims Track'. This is generally known to the lay public as the 'Small Claims Court' but does not exist as a separate court. Claims between £5,000 and £15,000 that are capable of being tried within one day are allocated to the 'Fast Track' and claims over £15,000 to the 'Multi Track'. These 'tracks' are labels for the use of the court system - the actual cases will be heard in the County Court or the High Court depending on their value.
For Personal Injury, Defamation cases and some Landlord and Tenant disputes the thresholds for each track have different values.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no right to appeal at any stage in UK court proceedings to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Any court in the UK may refer a particular point of law relating to European Union law to the ECJ for determination. However, once the ECJ has given its interpretation, the case is referred back to the court that referred it. This is symptomatic of the fact that although the European Union is increasingly federal, there is no federal court system, just laws that must be interpreted in the same way across all member states.
The decision to refer a question to the ECJ can be made by the court of its own initiative, or at the request of any of the parties before it. Where a question of European law is in doubt and there is no appeal from the decision of a court, it is required (except under the doctrine of acte clair) to refer the question to the ECJ; otherwise any referral is entirely at the discretion of the court.
Some first-instance cases, such as applications for annulment of an EU law or a claim for damages against an EU institution, can be brought before the EU-wide Court of First Instance and other EU tribunals, the decisions of which can be directly appealed to the ECJ on points of law only.
The ECtHR is an international court that hears complaints concerning breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. An unsatisfied litigant in England and Wales might complain to the ECtHR that English law has violated his rights. A decision in the ECtHR will not change English law, and it is up to the Government of the United Kingdom to decide what action (if any) to take after an adverse finding.
Courts in England and Wales are not bound to follow a decision of the ECtHR, although they should "take into account" ECtHR jurisprudence when applying the Convention. The Convention has always had an influence on decisions of courts in England and Wales, but now the Convention has two further effects:
It is not yet clear what this relationship will be.
Other historical courts inculde: