The English Legal System

England and Wales operate a common law legal system (See: Introduction To Legal Systems for more Cleverness on Legal Systems). This legal system is established over time by judgments made in earlier cases.

Who Is Who?

The UK Parliament is made up of two separate Houses:

  • House of Commons
  • House of Lords.

House of Commons

This is a representative body, the membership of which is elected. Certain persons are disqualified from membership by profession or occupation (for example, full-time judges) or by status (for instance, persons under the age of 21).

House of Lords

This is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. It is independent from, and complements the work of, the elected House of Commons. The Lords share the task of making and shaping laws and checking and challenging the work of the government. (See:


This is the government body that writes the laws in England.

The Judiciary

This part of the government is responsible for enforcing the law and includes all the judges who hear cases in court.

Lord Chief Justice

This is the most senior judge in England. They are the Head of the Judiciary of England and Wales and the President of the Courts of England and Wales. They represent the judiciary in Parliament.

Master of Rolls

This is the judge below the Lord Chief Justice.

President of the Family Division

This is the judge below the Master of Rolls.

Law Lords

The judges below the President of the Family Division.

Circuit Judges

The judges below the Law Lords.

District Judges

The judges below the Circuit Judges.

Lay People

People who are not judges but can play an important role in the administration of justice, such as heads of government offices.

Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC)

This independent commission selects candidates for judicial office in courts and tribunals in England and Wales, and occasionally Scotland or Northern Ireland. JAC is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice. See:

The Ministry Of Justice

The Minister of Justice does not get involved in individual cases. They determine guidelines that relate to general policy of the Prosecutor and the State Attorney and the decisions of the Attorney general.

(For more information see:

The Court System

The court system is divided into two parts:

  • Civil
  • Criminal

With some overlap between the two.

Civil Courts

These administer justice and seek to resolve disputes between parties. Civil Court powers:

  • The court can take goods owned by the defendant and sell them.
  • The court can attach wages and salary by taking money directly from the employer.
  • The court can take money from the defendant’s bank account.
  • The court can take the defendant’s land or shares of stock.
  • The court can stop a party from moving assets (freezing injunction).
  • The court can appoint a receiver (ex. for collecting rent).

Criminal Courts

The courts in the criminal jurisdiction administer justice and consider charges brought by the State against a defendant for breaking the law. These courts have some civil functions.

Court Hierarchy

The Supreme Court

This is the final court of appeal in the UK. It hears appeals on arguable points of law of public importance for the whole of the UK in civil cases, and for England and Wales and Northern Ireland in criminal cases.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is divided into two divisions:

  1. Civil
  2. Criminal division.

The Court of Appeal may uphold or reverse the case below. It may also give a new judgment or order a new trial.

House of Lords

This is the final criminal court of appeal. There are 12 Law Lords, presided over by the Lord Chancellor. The House of Lords hears appeals from the Court of Appeals. The House of Lords is important in human rights law because it can rule that an Act of Parliament is contrary to the 1998 Human Rights Act.

The High Court

The High Court hears the more serious and complex civil and family cases at first instance. The high court is divided into three divisions:

Queen’s Bench Division

  • Presided by the Lord Chief Justice.
  • Jurisdiction is every type of common law civil claim.
  • A commercial court that hears commercial business (ex. insurance) is part of the Queen’s Bench.

The Chancery Division

  • Presided by the Lord Chancellor.
  • A company court that hears business matters such as partnerships, mortgages, trusts, revenue, and bankruptcy.

The Family Division

  • Presided by a President.
  • Deals with family matters such as divorce and guardianship.

County Court

These courts hear cases within their geographic catchment area. They have general jurisdiction and can hear cases involving:

  • Civil (non-criminal and non-family) cases.
  • Money claims with a value up to and including GBP100,000
  • Claims for damages for personal injury with a value up to GBP50,000.

The Family Court

This has national jurisdiction and brings all levels of family-related cases together in the same court.

The Crown Court

These are located in centers around England and Wales. They deal with criminal cases transferred from the Magistrates’ Courts, including serious criminal cases. A judge and a jury of 12 people hear criminal cases. The Crown Court tries serious offenses and appeals from the Magistrate’s Court and Youth Court.

Magistrates’ Courts

Most magistrates are lay people, not judges. They receive legal advice from a law clerk. Most criminal cases start in Magistrate’s Court. It contains a Youth Court dealing with defendants under 18.

European Court of Justice

Any court may (and the House of Lords must) seek a preliminary ruling on a relevant point of European law.

legal tracksCase Allocation – Tracks

Civil law cases are assigned to a track based on the wishes of the parties, the view of the judge, the value of the claim, issues of privacy, and the time needed to resolve the case.

When a case is started, it goes to one of three tracks:

  1. Small Claims Track
  2. Fast Track
  3. Multi-track.

Small Claims Track

In a county court, you can sue someone for small claims. These claims are heard by a district judge with an appeal to a circuit judge.

Fast Track

Claims for between $5000 and 15,000 will be fast-tracked in county court. The cases cannot last more than one day and there is a limit on how much the lawyers’ costs can be. If heard by a district judge, the appeal is made to a circuit judge. A second appeal can be made to the Court of Appeal, but they often won’t take them.


Claims over $15,000 are multi-tracked. If the claim is over $50,000 it will be heard in High Court. It might also be held in High Court for certain other reasons. If heard by a district judge, circuit judge, or High Court judge, the appeal is to the Court of Appeal.

Judicial Review – Grounds


A decision can be challenged if:

  • The legal body makes a mistake by applying the incorrect law or asking the wrong legal question.
  • The legal body exercises power incorrectly. It may apply a statutory objective with the incorrect legal test.
  • The legal body uses the power that is outside of its jurisdiction
  • The legal body exercises power for a purpose for which the particular power was not granted.


A decision can be challenged if:

  • It is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it.
  • In reaching a decision, it took into account irrelevant matters and/or failed to consider relevant matters.

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