English legal system overview

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Although there are difference between the legal systems in the principalities of the UK -- particularly between Scotland and the other principalities -- the same broad principles apply to the whole of the UK.

  • The body of law has been developed over a period of many centuries, to accomodate changes in society.
  • The broadest, most philosophical principles of law have never been codified (see: Codification). No-one sat down and figured out, for example, that hurting people for financial gain was wrong, and therefore there should be particular statutes to that effect. Of course there are specific offences of this kind in the criminal law, but the guiding principal was one of custom, not of design. On the whole the law does not attempt to define many of the important terms that might be used; there is, for example, no strict definition of the term 'murder' in statute. To determine whether an action constituted murder one would have to refer to case law.
  • The body of law is divided into primary legislation (see: Primary legislation) and a large amount of case law.
  • primary legislation is interpreted by judges, and the principle of stare decisis is applied to reduce the number of cases for which entirely new interpretations need be sought (see: Stare decisis). This principle makes the application of law more consistent that might otherwise be the case.
  • The Judiciary, and indeed other legal professionals, are largely independent of the legislative bodies of state (government), and the executive functions of the police.
  • Laws of procedure are an integral part of the legal system, rather than distinct from it.
  • With the possible exception of Scotland, the UK has has retained very little Roman law; this is unusual in Europe.
  • The law emphasizes practicality, rather than principle. This means that courts are reluctant to enter into discussions of academic legal principles, but rather to resolve specific disputes (see: Ainsbury v millington (1987)).
    UK LAW