Courts of England and Wales

From Academic Kids

Schematic of court system for England and Wales
Schematic of court system for England and Wales

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).


House of Lords

The House of Lords is the highest court of appeal in England and Wales. In practice, only the Law Lords hear the appeals. It was 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.

Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales

The Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales is the superior court of England and Wales. It consists of the

When all the provisions of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 comes 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.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal consists of two divisions: the Civil Division hears appeals from the High Court and County Court, while the Criminal Division may only hear appeals from the Crown Court.

High Court

The High Court functions both as a civil court of first instance and a civil and criminal appellate court for cases from the subordinate courts. It consists of three divisions: the Queen's Bench, the Chancery and the Family divisions. The divisions of the High Court are not separate courts. Although particular kinds of cases will be assigned to each division depending on their subject matter, each division may exercise the jurisdiction of the High Court.

Crown Court

The Crown Court is a criminal court of first instance at the same level as the High Court, 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 common name of London's famous Central Criminal Court, which is now part of the Crown Court. The Crown Court also hears appeals from Magistrate's courts.

Subordinate courts

The subordinate courts in England and Wales are the

Magistrates' courts are presided over by a bench of lay magistrates (or justices of the peace), or a legally-trained district judge (formerly known as a stipendiary magistrate). There are no juries. They hear minor criminal cases, as well as certain licensing applications. County courts hear minor civil cases, and are generally presided over by district judges.

Special courts and tribunals

In addition, there are other courts and tribunals. Tribunals sit in judgement over a number of specialist areas, and frequently have appeals tribunals above them. For example, the Employment Tribunals (appeals to Employment Appeals Tribunal), VAT Tribunals, Lands Tribunal, etc.

In many cases there is a statutory right of appeal from a tribunal to a particular court or specially constituted appellate tribunal, for example Employment Tribunal cases are appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, which in turn (in England) allows appeals to the Court of Appeal. In the absence of a specific appeals court, the only remedy from a decision of a Tribunal is a judicial review to the High Court, which will often be more limited in scope than an appeal.

Administrative Court

The Administrative Court, formerly known as the Crown Office List, is a specialist court within the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court and concerns itself with the administrative law of England and Wales, and oversees lower courts and tribunals. Its largest function is the consideration of judicial review cases.

Coroner's courts

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. Coroners no longer sit in judgement of Treasure Trove cases, following the passing of the Treasure Act 1996.

Ecclesiastical courts

The Church of England is an established church (i.e. it is a state religion) and formerly had power over matters such as marriage and divorce law, wills, etc. Now the ecclesiastical courts deal with church property and errant clergy. Each Diocese has a 'Chancellor' (either a barrister or solicitor) who acts as a judge. The Bishop no longer has the right to preside personally, as he formerly did.

Other courts

Criminal cases

Most criminal cases initially go to the magistrates' courts. For minor crimes (90% of cases), the case is dealt with by summary trial by the magistrates, who have limited sentencing powers. For more serious crimes, the magistrates decide if there is a case to answer and then send it to the Crown Court, where the case is tried by a Circuit judge or a High Court judge, with a jury. For the most serious "indictable only" offences the case is sent automatically to the Crown Court.


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.

Civil cases

Under the new Civil Procedure Rules, 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 cases and some Landlord and Tenant disputes the thresholds for each track have different values.

Relationship with the European Court of Justice

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 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 to refer the question to the ECJ; otherwise any referral is entirely at the discretion of the court.


For nearly 300 years, from the time of the Norman Conquest until 1362, French was the language of the courts, rather than English. The Supreme Court of judicature was formed in 1873 from the merging of various courts then existing, such as the

See also

External links


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