A feature common to all the systems of law in the UK is that there is no
complete code. The sources of law include legislation (e.g. some 3,000 Acts of
Parliament) and unwritten or 'common law'. Major distinctions are between the
criminal law (wrongs against the community as a whole) and the civil law
(rights, duties and obligations of individuals between themselves).
The criminal courts in England and Wales include:
1 .Magistrates' Courts . About 98 per cent of all criminal cases are disposed
of by the magistrates (2 to 7) known as Justices of the Peace. These courts try
the less serious offences (they hear and determine charges against people
accused of summary offences, that is not serious enough to go before higher
courts). The second function of the Magistrates' Courts is to conduct a
preliminary hearing. Thirdly, they hear cases involving children (Juvenile
The magistrates act as licencing authorities for public houses, restaurants,
betting shops and other public places. There are about 27,250 lay magistrates,
sitting in nearly 700 different courts.
2. Crown Courts. The Crown Court deals with trials of the more serious cases,
the sentencing of offenders committed for sentence by magistrates' courts, and
appeals from magistrates' courts. It sits in about 90 centres and is presided
over by High Court judges, full-time 'circuit judges' and part-time recorders.
All contested trials take place before a jury. The jury consists of 12 persons
and try indictable, that is more serious criminal offences (10 out of 12 must
agree on their verdict).
NB: The Old Bailey - the central criminal court for Greater London.
The civil courts include:
1 .County Courts (300, presided over by a paid judge).Their jurisdiction
covers adoption cases, bankruptcy, divorce cases, actions concerning land,
trusts and mortgages (involving less than 750). Cases outside this limit are
heard before High Court Judges, sitting either in the Crown Courts or in the
High Court itself.
2. The High Court of Justice is divided into the Chancery Division
(mortgages, bankruptcies, partnership, estates), the Family Division and the
Queen's Bench Division (Common Law actions, commercial disputes). It covers
virtually all civil cases. The Family Division of the High Court now deals
with all jurisdiction affecting the family:
divorce, wardship, guardianship and probate (the ratification of wills).
Maritime law is the responsibility of a specially constituted court of the
queen's Bench Division.
The Judicial Personnel
Judges: appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Lord Chancellor; hold
office for life; are selected among senior barristers, especially Q.C.s (Queen's
Counsels); 200 approximately.
Barristers: lawyers who have passed the examination of the Bar Council
("called to the bar"); there are 2,000 approximately organised as a very
powerful and closed corporation (Inns of Court). These are the Inner Temple, the
Middle Temple, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn. The four societies together form
what is known as
"The Bar". The Bar as a whole is responsible for the education of would-be
barristers. The successful candidate is rewarded by being called to the Bar. The
duty of barristers is to further their clients' cases in courts and speak in law
courts. As 'counsel for the prosecution' a barrister will try to prove the
accused person's guilt. As 'counsel for the defence' he will defend the
Solicitors: members of the Law Society, prepare all the judicial work
(briefs, enquiries, witnesses) : 25,000 approximately. Their main function is to
keep a client out of the courts by advising him, drafting his contracts, wills,
leases and many other documents.
Justices of the Peace (JPs): unpaid and non-professional magistrates for
inferior courts; assisted by professionals (clerks).
Police. There are about 60 police forces in Britain, each employed and paid
by the local authorities. They get half their money from the local rates and
half from the Treasury. The forces are completely independent of one another.
Each force has its C.I.D. - Criminal Investigation Department. The London Police
Force, called the Metropolitan Police, is not controlled by the local authority.
It is responsible to the Home Secretary, and its chief officers are appointed by
the Government. 'Scotland Yard', the C.I.D. of the Metropolitan Police, is so
called because the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police are in New Scotland
Yard, near Whitehall.
NB: If in trouble, or if you've witnessed a crime, go to the nearest
telephone and dial 999. You'll be put through immediately to the Post Office,
who will ask which service you want - Police, Fire Brigade or Ambulance.
Traffic Wardens. Traffic wardens were first introduced in I960. Now there are
about 20,000 traffic wardens in England and Wales. They deal with minor traffic
offences), like parking in the wrong place, or without lights; they report car
owners who do not have a licence; they supervise school children crossing
NB: The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1965.