English Legal System - Sources of Law (Part 1)

The Court Structure in the UK and the Common Law

Classification of Law

Law may be classified in different ways depending on the context, such as International Law (Private International law and Public International law), concerning the relationships between sovereign States and Municipal Law, concerning the laws of the State

English law can be divided into Public Law and Private Law

Public Law concerns the state and the individuals in relation to the state and includes: Constitutional and Administrative Law, European Community Law and Criminal Law

Private Law concerns the rights and duties between individuals and includes:

The Law of Contract – agreements
The Law of Tort – civil wrongs
Family Law – personal relationships
The Law of Succession – inheritance
The Law of Property – ownership and possession of goods
The Law of Trusts – holding property for the benefit of another

The most common division of English Law is between Civil Law and Criminal Law

In order to understand the structure of English legal system it is important to understand the division between civil and criminal law as the terminology, procedures and outcome is different

Civil Law concerns the relationships between individuals including companies, government departments, etc. and the civil wrongs include breach of contract, tort and breach of trust.

Criminal Law concerns acts which are considered as wrongful acts against the state and they may be divided into indictable, summary and offences triable either way

The Structure of the Court System in the UK

When looking at the Courts as a source of law, two (2) distinctions must be made:

1. Distinction between trial courts and appellate courts:

Trial courts hear cases as ‘first instance’ to make a ruling on the issues of fact and law

Appellate courts reconsider the application of legal principles to case which has been already heard by a lower court

Trial and appellate functions are often combined within one court, so it is not possible to state that a court is solely a trial or appellate court

2. Distinction between criminal courts and civil courts:

term civil law includes the areas of law governing relationships between legal persons such as tort, contract, employment

criminal law includes wrongs that are important for the society to outlaw as crimes and to impose special penalties on the wrongdoer (e.g. imprisonment or a fine) – crimes are divided into: indictable, summary and offences triable either way

there is fairly clear distinction between courts having civil and those having criminal jurisdiction

The Hierarchy of the Courts

In order to fully understand the common law and the concept of judicial precedent (discussed below) it is essential first to be familiar with the court structure within the UK.

Hierarchy of the main civil courts
1. European Court of Justice (on European Law)
2. House of Lords
3. Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
4. High Court
5. County Court

Hierarchy of the criminal courts
1. House of Lords
2. Court of Appeal (Criminal division)
3. Queen’s Bench Division
4. Crown Court
5. Magistrates’ Court
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