Court system of England
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In the UK, all but the most serious or difficult civil and criminal cases are handled by separate court systems: civil cases by tribunals and county courts, criminal cases by magistrates' courts and Crown Court centres. In England and Wales, more serious cases, and some appeals, are handled by the High Court. Appeals from the High Court and, in some cases, from subordinate courts are heard in the Court of Appeal. In Scotland the Court of Session combines the roles of the High Court and Court of Appeal. Appeals from the Court of Appeal and Court of Session may be heard in the House of lords. A great deal of information about the UK court system may be found on the Court Service Web site (see: Court service). This subsection describes some of the more important English courts; there are others.
County courts The 226 county courts hear most civil litigation, particularly financial matters like non-payment of debt, and disputes over land boundaries. The small claims court system is a division of the county courts, but with a streamlined claims procedure and a fixed upper limit on the size of the claim (see: Small claims court). Cases that cannot be resolved in the county courts, or which are appealed, will usually be heard in the High Court.
Magistrates' courts Magistrates courts, of which there are about 900, hear most criminal cases initially. The less serious cases will be dealt with summarily by the magistrates (about 97% of cases are so dealt with); others will be referred to the Crown Court for jury trial or for sentencing. These processes are called 'committal for trial' or 'committal for sentencing' (see: Committal proceedings). For more information, see Mode of trial. Appeals from the magistrates' courts on issues other than points of law are heard in the Crown Court.
Magistrates' courts also hear a number of civil actions, particular relating to licensing, and some may deal with family matters. These latter include the grant of maintenance, protection, and custody orders (see: Maintenance order, Protection order, Custody order).
Magistrates are not necessarily professional lawyers (stipendiary magistrates) but residents of the local community in good standing -- Justices of the Peace (see: Magistrate). A 'Clerk to the Justices' (a solicitor, see: Solicitor, or barrister, see: Barrister of five years' standing) provides guidance to the magistrates on points of law and precedent, and manages the administrative work of the court. The Clerk does not normally get involved with the judgement itself.
Crown Court The 93 Crown Court centres hear most of the more serious criminal cases, and cases appealed from the magistrates' courts on points of fact. They may also determine sentence in cases where an offender has been found guilty by a magistrates' court, but the magistrates don't have sufficient powers to sentence appropriately. Decisions may be appealed to the Court of Appeal or 'by way of case stated' to the Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division (see: Case stated). It is not clear whether Crown Court decisions are binding on magistrates' courts; this is difficult to test because Crown Court decisions are not recorded in the Law Reports (see: Law reports) so precedent is not always clear.
High Court The High Court hears the more serious civil cases, and most appeals from the county courts. It also hears some appeals from magistrates' courts, as will be discussed later. The High Court has three Divisions: 'Queen's Bench', 'Family' and 'Chancery'.
The Queen's Bench Division hears cases concerning contract law, tort law, commercial law, and admiralty. The Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Divisional has a somewhat distinct role from the Queen's Bench Division itself, and is discussed separately. This Division is headed by the Lord Chief Justice (see: Lord chief justice), who is also head of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.
The Family Division deals with divorce and similar family matters, particular those relating to the care of children. It also contains the Probate registry. The Division is headed by a President.
The Chancery Division deals with equitites and trusts, wills (see: Probate), companies and issues relating to patents.
Cases appealed from the High Court are heard in the Court of Appeal.
Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division This court is formally part of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, but is concerned with criminal, not civil, cases. It hears appeals from the magistrates court on points of law, not on points of fact. This meta of appeal is called an appeal 'by way of case stated' (see: Case stated).
Coroners' Court Although historically the Coroners' Court had extensive powers, it is now concerned primarily with determining cause of death and the identity of the deceased. Coroners' Courts are often involved when death is suspicious, violent, or 'unnatural', or takes place in a prison or mental institution. If a person has been formally accused of causing a death, the the Coroners' Court formally ajourns until sentence is passed, and no verdict is offered.
Coroners' Courts have a number of roles which are less well-known. For example, they decide on the disposition of valuables discovered with no known owner (see treasure trove).
Court of Appeal The Court of Appeal deals entirely with appeals from other courts. It has a Criminal Division, which deals with appeals from the Crown Court and the Queen's Bench Divisional Court, and a Civil Division for appeals from the High Court, county courts, and tribunals. Decision made in the Court of Appeal are binding (see: Stare decisis) on all other courts except the House of lords. Decisions of the Criminal Division are binding on the Crown Court and magistrates' courts, and may be binding on the QB Divisional Court (this is uncertain at present). Decision of the Civil Division are binding on the county courts and High Court. The Criminal Division is headed by the Lord Chief Justice, the Civil Division by the Master of the Rolls. The judges of the Court of Appeal are formally known as Lords Justice of Appeal.
Courts Martial Appeal Court The court that hears appeals from courts martial (military courts). Despite its business (or perhaps because of it) this court is not presided over by military personnel, but by the same judges that sit in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.
House of lords
The judicial function of the UK House of lords is entirely separate from its role in government; the judicial work is done by a number of senior judges colloquially called 'Law Lords' (see: Law lord). They hear appeals from the High Court and the Court of Appeal and are, in effect, the final resort for appeal in the UK legal system. House of lords rulings are binding on all other courts.