Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Explaining our Law and Legal System ... No.2 ... Courts of Law and Tribunals

TV Series - SILK
The recent six episode TV series "SILK" (starring Maxine Peake as barrister Martha Costello) was packed with courtroom drama.  Courts and tribunals are the places where the legal system decides the outcome of disputes and the range of possible disputes is enormous.  Examples include courts with international authority (or jurisdiction) ruling on questions of law with international impact to national courts determining disputes between either government (whether central or local) and "persons" or simply disputes between "persons."  Then there are criminal courts before which "persons" are prosecuted for alleged breaches of the criminal law.  In all of these situations, the court administers justice "according to law." 

The use of the word "persons" may seem odd to the reader but, in law, it includes not just individuals but also certain types of organisation which have been given "legal personality" by the law.  A simple example of this is the Limited Company - e.g. Fred Jones Ltd.    "Fred Jones Ltd" may be a party to a case in its own right.

Civil and Criminal Cases - 

Cases before the courts are often classed as either Civil cases or as Criminal Cases.  A typical civil case is where person A alleges that B has breached a contract - (that is a legally enforceable agreement) - and that A has suffered loss as a result.  Another example is where C claims that D has done some work negligently and this has caused him damage such as personal injury.  The person bringing the claim in a civil case is known as "the claimant" and the other party is the "defendant."  Criminal cases are normally "prosecuted" by the State and the person on trial for the alleged breach of the criminal law is "the defendant."

International Courts - It is worth mentioning certain courts with international authority.  The United Nations Charter created the "International Court of Justice" which sits at The Hague.  Basically, this deals with disputes between States.   The European Court of Human Rights is frequently in the news and is the final judicial authority on the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights.  This important court sits at Strasbourg and operates under the Council of Europe.  The Convention basically requires governments to protect certain crucial rights such as the right to life, the right to a fair trial etc.  There is a great deal of confusion between the Council of Europe and the European Union.  They are distinct international organisations.  The Council of Europe has 47 members whereas the European Union has 27 members.  The Court of Justice of the European Union sits at Luxembourg and is the final judicial authority on the law of the European Union.  The rights of this court are based on the various Treaties (i.e. agreements between States) which set up the European Union.

Supreme Court of the UK
Courts in England and Wales -  Interestingly, the nation's highest "court" is Parliament of the UK.  It is the High Court of Parliament (here) and is the ultimate law-making body for the United Kingdom.  Until October 2009 the House of Lords was the final appeal court for all legal matters in the U.K. with the exception of Scottish criminal cases.  In October 2009, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom was created and took over the work previously done by the House of Lords.  This court
has 12 justices and sits in its own separate building in Parliament Square, London.   The court hears only the most important appeals and many of its cases involved difficult and serious issues touching on governmental power and the rights of the citizen.  This can give the appearance of the court being at odds with the government and some Ministers have been openly critical of some of the court's decisions.  Nevertheless, the court's remit is to ascertain the law relevant to the case which it has to decide and then to apply that law.  It is open to Parliament to amend the law if it feels that to be necessary.

The proceedings in the Supreme Court of the U.K. may be watched live.   Here you will see many of our finest lawyers arguing their cases before the Justices.  You will see the justices testing the arguments through their questioning of counsel.  This is a superb and welcome innovation.

Court of Appeal and High Court
Court of Appeal and the High Court - (referred to as the senior Courts of England and Wales)

Below the Supreme Court comes the Court of Appeal which sits in two divisions: Criminal and Civil.  The vast majority of cases actually finish either at this level or at lower levels.   The Court of Appeal usually sits at the Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand, London but the court may sit elsewhere.  Its judges are known as Lords (or Lady) Justices of Appeal.  Underneath the Court of Appeal is the High Court of Justice which has three basic Divisions referred to as Queen's Bench, Chancery and Family though there are also several specialist courts known as the Administrative Court, the Technology and Construction Court, the Commercial Court and the Admiralty Court.  The High Court sits either in London or at major legal centres such as Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham etc.  The judiciary in the High Court are the "Justices of the High Court."  The High Court essentially hears the more difficult civil cases or where the financial amount at stake is very considerable.  Appeals from the High Court usually go to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) but, very occasionally, can "leapfrog" to the Supreme Court.

County Courts -  are located at many places in England and Wales and have jurisdiction in many types of civil case though, as mentioned before, some civil cases must go to the High Court.  It is either in the County Court or at a Tribunal that the vast majority of civil cases will be heard.  It is possible to appeal from the County Court to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division).

Crown Court - deals with the most serious criminal cases which are heard by a Judge sitting with a Jury of twelve.  There are various levels of judge.  High Court Judges will preside over the most serious cases.  Other levels of judiciary are Circuit Judges (many of whom take some very serious cases) and Recorders.  The Crown Court also hears appeals from the Magistrates' Courts - which are heard by a Judge sitting with two Justices of the Peace.   Appeals just against the sentence imposed by Magistrates is also possible.

Kidderminster Magistrates Court
The Magistrates' Courts -  hear criminal cases brought against adults and over 90% of those criminal cases brought to court are dealt with here.  A special Youth Court hears criminal cases brought against children and young persons.

The Magistrates' Courts are manned by "Justices of the Peace" (JPs) who do not have to be legally qualified but who are advised on points of law and procedure by a qualified legal adviser.  There are about 30,000 JPs in England and Wales and this is an important and valuable involvement of the citizen with the administration of justice.  The justices normally sit in panels of three.  An increasing number of cases are now being heard by legally qualified District Judges (Magistrates Courts) who sit alone and have the full powers of the Magistrates' Court. 

The Magistrates' Courts have some civil jurisdiction.  Mainly this is in Family Proceedings though family cases can be allocated, according to complexity, to the County Court or to the High Court.  Magistrates will normally handle only the more straightforward of these cases.

It is a matter for some regret that the number of Magistrates' Courts is being reduced in order to make financial savings.  Unfortunately, this entails victims of crime and witnesses having to travel further for their cases.

Coroners Courts -  must hold an "inquest" into the death of any individual within the Coroner's jurisdiction who has (a) suffered a violent or unnatural death or (b) suffered a sudden death where the cause is unknown or (c) died in prison.  The purpose of the inquest is to determine HOW, WHEN and WHERE the deceased came by death.  An inquest is an inquiry into these matters and does not decide civil or criminal liability.  In some situations a Coroner must sit with a jury though this is relatively rare.  Many aspects of Coroners and their courts have been the subject of considerable adverse comment in recent times.  The Labour government enacted the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to make reforms but much of this remains unimplemented.

Tribunals - a  very large number of cases are heard by Tribunals - e.g. claims for unfair dismissal etc.  The whole structure of Tribunals has been radically altered over the last few years and what were separate and distinct Tribunals have been brought within a single structure of the Upper tribunal and the Lower tier tribunal.  The work of each of these is divided, according to subject-matter, into Chambers.  Many tribunals bring together lawyers and lay persons to hear cases.  The lay members are selected because of their expertise in the subject-matter before the tribunal.  More on Tribunals here.

Other courts - even the above is not a complete picture.  There is a Court-Martial dealing with military matters.   Ecclesiastical Courts exist to deal with the internal matters of the Church of England.  Then there is the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) which has handled some of the difficult cases relating to "terrorism."  Yet another court, coming to some prominence, is the Court of Protection which deals with the affairs of those who are unable to manage their own affairs due to disability etc.

To the "man in the street" this can appear to be a bewildering system.  Much of it can only truly be explained by history and by the many and varied changes made by Parliament.  Over the years old courts have disappeared - (such as Assizes and Quarter Sessions) - only to be replaced by new - (the Crown Court).  It might be thought - why not have a single Civil Court and a single Criminal Court?  This idea has been put forward occasionally but has not, so far, found general acceptance.


  1. Great summary! I will use it for an intro to law workshop next term.

  2. In the paragraph about "international courts" I did not include the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. I hope to do a separate post on that court in the near future.