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The British Government: The Legal System
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services

The Law
Although Britain is a unitary state, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own legal systems, with considerable differences in law, organisation and practice. However, a large amount of modern legislation applies throughout Britain. The law is divided into criminal law and civil law; the latter regulates the conduct of people in ordinary relations with one another. The distinction between the two branches of the law is reflected in the procedures used, the courts in which cases may be heard and the sanctions which may be applied.

The legal system of England and Wales comprises both an historic body of conventions known as common law and equity, and parliamentary and European Community legislation; the last of these applies throughout Britain. Common law, which is based on custom and interpreted in court cases by judges, has never been precisely defined or codified. It forms the basis of the law except when superseded by legislation. Equity law consists of a body of historic rules and principles which are applied by the courts. The English legal system is therefbre distinct from many of those of Western Europe, which have codes derived from Roman law.

European Community law, deriving from Britain's membership of the European Union, is confined mainly to economic and social matters; in certain circumstances it takes precedence over domestic law. It is normally applied by the domestic courts, but the most authoritative rulings are given by the European Court.

The Judiciary
The Lord Chancellor is head of the judiciary in England and Wales. His responsibilities include court procedure and, through the Court Service, the administration of the higher courts and many tribunals in England and Wales. He recommends all judicial appointments to the Crown - other than the highest, which are recommended by the Prime Minister - and appoints magistrates. Judges are normally appointed from practising lawyers. They are not subject to ministerial direction or control.

Criminal Courts:

Summary or less serious offences, which make up the vast majority of criminal cases, are tried in England and Wales by unpaid lay magistrates - justices of the peace (IPs), although in areas with a heavy workload there are a number of full-time, stipendiary magistrates. More serious offences are tried by the Crown Court, presided over by a judge sitting with a jury of citizens randomly picked from the local electoral register. The Crown Court sits at about 90 centres and is presided over by High Court judges, full-time 'circuit judges' and part-time recorders.

Appeals from the magistrates' courts go before the Crown Court or the High Court. Appeals from the Crown Court are made to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). The House of Lords is the final appeal court in all cases.

Civil Courts
Magistrates' courts have limited civil jurisdiction. The Y70 county courts have a wider jurisdiction; cases are normally tried by judges sitting alone. The 80 or so judges in the High Court cover civil cases and some criminal cases, and also deal with the appeals. The High Court sits at the Royal Courts of Justice in London or at 26 district registries. Appeals from the High Court are heard in the Court of Appeal (Civil Division), and may go on to the House of Lords, the final court of appeal.

The Home Secretary
The Home Secretary has overall responsibility fbr the criminal justice system in England and Wales and for advising the Queen on the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy to pardon a person convicted of a crime or to remit all or part of a penalty imposed by a court. The Home Secretary can also send a case back to the Court of Appeal if fresh evidence emerges after a conviction has been made.

The principles and procedures of the Scottish legal system (particularly in civil law) differ in many respects from those of England and Wales.

Criminal cases are tried in district courts, sheriff courts and the High Court of Justiciary. The main civil courts are the sheriff courts and the Court of Session.

The Secretary of State for Scotland recommends the appointment of all judges other than the most senior ones. He or she also appoints the staff of the High Court of Justiciary and the Court of Session, and is responsible for the composition, staffing and organisation of the sheriff courts. District courts are staffed and administered by the district and islands local authorities.

Northern Ireland
The legal system of Northern Ireland is in many respects similar to that of England and Wales. It has its own court system: the superior courts are the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Crown Court, which together comprise the Supreme Court of Judicature. A number of arrangements differ from those in England and Wales. A major example is that those accused of terrorist-type offences are tried in nonjury courts to avoid any intimidation of jurors.

Tribunals are a specialised group of judicial bodies, akin to courts of law. They are normally set up under statutory powers which also govern their constitution, functions and procedure.

Tribunals often consist of lay people, but they are generally chaired by a legally qualified person. They tend to be less expensive, and less formal, than courts of law. Some tribunals settle disputes between private citizens. Industrial tribunals, for example, play a major role in employment disputes. Others, such as those concerned with social security, resolve claims by private citizens against public authorities. A further group, including tax tribunals, decide disputed claims by public authorities against private citizens. Tribunals usually consist of an uneven number of people so that a majority decision can be reached.

Members are normally appointed by the government minister concerned with the subject, although the Lord Chancellor (or Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland) makes most appointments when a lawyer chairman or member is required. In many cases there is a right of appeal to a higher tribunal and, usually, to the courts. Tribunals do not normally employ staff or spend money themselves, but their expenses are paid by the government departments concerned. An independent Council on Tribunals exercises general supervision over many tribunals.

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