The complex English courts hierarchy can be confusing at times due to having been developed over time rather than premeditated from scratch. Although England and Wales have one system while Scotland and Northern Ireland have another, the arrangement of courts across the whole UK comprises of both criminal and civil cases.
The UK courts are managed by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service which is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice. The structure of the court system is hierarchical, meaning that there is a court of first instance and various appellate courts above.
The County Courts deal with most of the cases in the civil court system. When there is a case in a civil court, it usually happens when an individual or a company feels that their civil rights have been overstepped. It acts as a first instance court, usually for minor civil issues such as compensation for personal injuries, consumer disputes, trusts or mortgages, landlord and tenant disputes etc…
Circuit, fee-paid and district judges all sit in a County Court. Circuit judges operate both in the Crown and County Court and are appointed to a region in England and Wales. District judges handle most of the cases in the County Courts.
The High Court mainly deals with civil cases and appeals from the lower County Courts. It’s made up of three main divisions: Chancery, Queen’s Bench and Family. It’s based at the Royal Courts of Justice in Central London but has various registries throughout England and Wales in which numerous High Court proceedings may take place.
The Chancery Division receives cases involving trusts and other equitable matters such as the disputes related to trusts or business, EU or UK competition claims, probate disputes, bankruptcy, sale of land, mortgages, patents, trademarks etc…
With more than 70 judges, the Queen’s Bench Division hears matters regarding contract tort cases, and those that cannot be tried in the County Court – such as personal injury claims.
The Family Division hears matters involving children, wardship, guardianship, probate, adoption and matrimonial actions.
These divisions are only an outline of the types of cases they see; they are not set in stone and are there for administrative purposes.
Headed by Master of the Rolls at the Royal Courts of Justice, the Court of Appeal is exclusively an appellate court and hears appeals against decisions made in a County Court or in the High Court. The Court of Appeal is the second most senior court in England and Wales. Permission is necessary for an appeal in almost all cases, and in most cases, permission can be granted by the court whose decision is being appealed or by the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court is the highest domestic court and therefore the final court of appeal in the UK for civil and criminal cases. It hears appeals based on ‘points of law’ in both criminal and civil cases and cases are typically heard by five law lords (Lords of Appeal in Ordinary).
The Supreme Court hears the majority of procedures from the Court of Appeal and sometimes through the High Court through the leapfrog procedure. This refers to a relatively rare form of appeal where a case heard by the High Court, an appellate court or as a source of judicial review is appealed directly to the Supreme Court.
As all criminal cases start in a Magistrates’ court, these courts overlook the vast majority of criminal proceedings – but also handle a small minority of civil matters. These cases are heard either by approximately two or three lay magistrates (justices of the peace) or by a qualified district judge. It should be noted that there is no jury in a Magistrates’ court. However, the defendant can claim on their right to a trial in the Crown court. Likewise, if the magistrates believe that the case is more serious, they can send it to be dealt with in the crown court, where harsher sentences can be given.
The jurisdiction a Magistrates’ court has is for minor criminal offences, known as ‘summary offences’ where the defendant is not entitled to a trial by a jury, such as:
It also deals with what is known as ‘either way’ offences – some of the more serious offences, such as:
Created under the Courts Act of 1971, the Crown Court can be found at numerous centres across England and Wales and deals with severe criminal cases such as murder, rape or robbery. As explained above, it hears appeals and sentences for cases from Magistrates’ courts. An example of the types of cases seen by a Crown Court include:
The sentencing in a Crown court ranges widely from as little as community sentences to much tougher prison sentences – even including life sentences.
The Court of Appeal in the criminal division is the second-highest court below the Supreme Court and deals with appeals against sentences from the Crown Court. This court comprises of numerous lord and lady ‘justices of appeal’, the lord chief justice, the master of the rolls and many others.
These have been the main courts in the UK today, although there are some others such as the Privy council – a body established to advise the monarchy on sovereign matters outside of the UK initially.
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