How does the UK judicial system work?

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The Courts system in England and Wales. Scotland retains its own distinct system.
The ongoing ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial involving Colleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy is about alleged defamation, a civil issue.

There are two types of law in the UK, criminal and civil. Criminal Law is where the state (or a private individual) seeks to punish a crime (something that the state has decided is prohibited). For example, murder is a criminal offence and necessitates a criminal trial if someone is suspected of having committed it. Civil law is where courts adjudicate on disputes between parties and allows for parties to seek compensation and damages. For example, defamation is not a criminal offence, but is a civil wrong, and can therefore be adjudicated in the civil courts.

Both legal systems have separate court systems. However, there are some commonalities between the two.

Criminal Courts

A typical Magistrates Court.

Magistrates Courts – All criminal cases, however serious, begin in a Magistrate’s Court. Magistrate’s courts are constituted of one district judge or three lay magistrates. There is no jury in a Magistrates Court. The sentencing powers for Magistrates Courts are very limited. The maximum term of imprisonment for a Magistrates Court is 12 months imprisonment if a defendant is found guilty of two offences. For a single offence, the maximum term of imprisonment is 6 months. Therefore, more serious cases will be referred to a Crown Court for either trial or for sentencing.

In 2020 there were 1.12 million cases in front of a Magistrates Court and 1.04 of these were dealt with by Magistrates alone.

The Old Bailey is the most well known Crown Court.

Crown Court – Crown Courts deal with more serious crimes and also with appeals from the Magistrates Court. Anyone convicted in a Magistrate’s Court has an automatic right of appeal in the Crown Court. The Crown Courts also carry out jury trials for more serious cases.

In 2020 there were 96,582 cases in front of the Crown Courts.

Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) – The Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) deals with convictions that have been referred from the Crown Court. Applications for appeal must be made within 28 days of conviction and are not automatic, the Court must give ‘leave’ for the appeal. The Court of Appeal can quash convictions as ‘unsafe’ and can either acquit the defendant or order a retrial. The Court of Appeal will also hear appeals about excessive sentences.

The Supreme Court opened in 2009.

Supreme Court – The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for both criminal and civil cases. However, it is unusual for criminal cases to be referred to the Supreme Court. This is because the Supreme Court will only hear cases where there is a wider public interest on an issue of the law. The Supreme Court will not readjudicate the facts of the case.

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Jogee (left), took the issue of joint enterprise to the Supreme Court.

An example of a significant criminal issue heard by the Supreme Court is R v Jogee (2016). In 2011, Ameen Jogee had been convicted under ‘joint enterprise’ of the murder of a police officer. Jogee was given a life sentence after he had ‘egged on’ his friend who had stabbed the police officer in the heart. However, Jogee had argued that he was not present when the fatal incident took place and he could not of foreseen what his friend would do. In its judgement, the Supreme Court ruled that ‘foresight’ was not sufficient to convict someone of murder. Whilst the judgement did not mean that all convictions for murder under joint enterprise were unsafe, it opened the door for appeals for those convicted of this offence. In the case of Jogee, his appeal saw his conviction for murder replaced with a conviction for manslaughter – for which he was jailed for 12 years.

Civil Courts

County Court – The County Court is the first court for civil claims. For claims under £10,000, they are dealt with in small claims court and this is now often done entirely online. However, depending on the amount claimed, some claims will automatically go to the High Court. In addition, some civil claims, like that of defamation, automatically enter at the High Court.

High Court – The High Court has three divisions: Queen’s Bench, Chancery and Family Division. They all have different focuses:

Queen’s Bench – This division handles a variety of issues including: personal injury, negligence, breach of contract, Human Rights abuses, defamation and debt enforcement.

Chancery – This division handles issues including: business disputes, competition claims, disputes over wills.

Family – This deals with family disputes including divorce and child custody issues.

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The Royal Courts of Justice.

The High Court hears the most important civil cases and also appeals from the County Court. The High Court is based at the Royal Courts of Justice and there are over 20 court rooms that are all used on a daily basis.

Court of Appeal (Civil) – The Court of Appeal is inferior only to the Supreme Court. It hears appeals from the High Court. Permission to appeal is not automatic, and is either granted by an inferior court or the Court of Appeal itself. Appeals are allowed if the decision of an inferior court was incorrect or if there has been some procedural error that may have made the decision incorrect.

Supreme Court – The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal for all civil cases across the whole of the UK. Most of the cases heard by the Supreme Court are civil cases.

Difference in burdens of proof in Civil and Criminal Court

OJ Simpson was found not guilty of murder in his criminal trial, but liable for the deaths of those murdered in his civil trial.

One key difference between the the Civil and Criminal Courts is the burden of proof required to convict someone of a crime or find someone liable of wrongdoing. In a criminal case a defendant must be found to be guilty of the offence ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. This means that if there is reasonable doubt in whether or not they committed the offence, they should be acquitted. The purpose of this required burden is to ensure that only those who have actually committed an offence are imprisoned and to reduce the number of wrongful convictions within the criminal justice system. However, in a civil trial, the burden of proof is simply the ‘balance of probabilities’. This means that a judge or jury believes merely that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable. Most famously, in 1995 American Football star OJ Simpson was acquitted in a criminal case of the vicious murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend, Ron Goldman. However, two years later in a civil trial he was found, based on largely the same evidence, to be liable for their deaths and was ordered to pay damages of $33.5 million.

The importance of judicial review

Most commonly, the parties in a civil trial are individuals or corporations. However, sometimes one of the parties is the state and someone is challenging the legality of the actions of the state. This is known as judicial review. A governmental decision can be challenged it falls into one of three catergories:

1. Illegality: for example, an action not taken in accordance with the law that regulates it or goes beyond the powers of the body.

2. Irrationality: for example, an action was not taken reasonably, or that no reasonable person could have taken it.

3. Procedural irregularity: for example, a failure to consult properly or to act in accordance with natural justice or with the underpinning procedural rule

Judicial Review has grown significantly in recent years, particularly since the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998. There are a number of prominent examples of judicial review:

What are the best examples of Judicial Review in the Supreme Court since 2009?

Judicial Review has become such a powerful tool with which to hold the government to account that the current Conservative Government is considering passing legislation to limit the power of judicial review.

The role and nature of the Supreme Court

Who were the Law Lords? | Politics Teaching
The chamber of the House of Lords regularly turned into a courtroom when the Law Lords were in session.

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal across the whole of the UK for both civil and criminal cases. It was formed in 2005 with the introduction of the Constitutional Reform Act. Prior to this, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords provided this function but the Constitutional Reform Act (2005) removed all the judicial functions of the House of Lords. The powers and role of Supreme Court are similar to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, however, its composition and perception is very different.

Firstly, the UK Supreme Court has placed an emphasis on transparency. All cases can be viewed online and judgement are issued in both summary and press summary form. These actions have been taken in order to try to demystify the judiciary and its role.

Secondly, the introduction of the Supreme Court produced a greater separation of powers. Although there was a convention that Law Lords did not vote on controversial legislation, they could vote and speak in the Lords. No other Liberal Democracy allowed their senior judges to sit in the legislature. The creation of a separate Supreme Court therefore modernized the constitution as regards this issue.

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