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Courts of England and Wales

This article concerns the Courts of 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. One exception to this rule is the area of immigration law, the Immigration Appellate Authority's jurisdiction cover the whole of the United Kingdom.

Table of contents
1 The House of Lords
2 The Supreme Court of Judicature
3 Subordinate courts
4 Criminal Cases
5 Civil Cases
6 Special Courts and Tribunals
7 History
8 Also See

The 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 amended the act to preserve the House of Lords' judicial function.

The Supreme Court of Judicature

The Supreme Court of Judicature is the superior court of England and Wales. It was formed in 1873 from the merger of various courts, such as:

The Supreme Court now consists of

The High Court functions both as a civil court of first instance and an civil and criminal appellate court for cases from the subordinate courts. The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court.

The Crown Court is a criminal court of first instance at the same level as the High Court, established in 1971, which replaces 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.

Subordinate courts

The subordinate courts in England and Wales are

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.

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 sends it to the Crown Court, where the case is tried by a Circuit judge or a High Court judge, with a jury.


There are various courses of appeal. From the Magistrates' Court, an appeal can be taken to the Crown Court on matters of fact and law. From the Crown Court, an appeal can be taken to the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal. Appeals on matters of law can be taken to the Divisional Court of the High Courtfrom the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court. Appeals from the High Court take the usual route via the Court of Appeal and 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 1 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. Personal Injury cases 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. Note that only the most senior courts in the UK are entitled to refer cases (e.g. the High Court of England and Wales or the House of Lords). 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.

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, Land Tribunals etc. etc.

The tribunals will either give a right of appeal to the specific appeals tribunal (e.g. Employment Tribunal cases are appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal) which in turn allows appeals to the Court of Appeal or, in the absence of a specific appeals court, will have a right of appeal to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court which has general authority over all lesser courts.

Other courts that still sit frequently:

Administrative Court

The Administrative Court, formerly known as the Divisional Court, concerns itself with the administrative law of England and Wales, and oversees lower courts and tribunals. It's largest function is the consideration of judicial review cases.

Coroner's Courts

Coroners 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


For nearly 300 years, from the time of the
Norman Conquest until 1362, French was the language of the courts, rather than English.

Also See