Civil courts in England and Wales
Most cases dealing with claims for less than about £25000 start in the local County Court of which there are 250. Cases are heard by a legally qualified judge. An appeal can be taken from the District Judge to the Circuit Judge. County Court decisions are not binding in other County Court cases but are generally followed unless there is a good reason not to.
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Cases involving larger sums of money or more important legal points are raised in the High Court. The High Court sits in London and in a few regional centres. It is split into Divisions. For example, the Family Division deals with divorce and child welfare matters and also the administration of wills; the Chancery Division considers complex matters such as disputes about wills, settlements and trusts, bankruptcy, land law, intellectual property and corporate laws; and the Queen’s Bench Division deals with the remaining business including disputes about contracts, torts or land. The Queen’s Bench Division has some specialist sub-Divisions, including a Commercial Court which deals with large and complex business disputes.
You can appeal a County Court or High Court decision to the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal on law only. From the Court of Appeal, there can be an appeal to the House of Lords on fact or law but usually, if it involves matters of legal importance. It is also possible to bring an appeal from the High Court to the House of Lords but this is rare.
Up to the Court of Appeal level, a judge must follow the decisions of all the higher courts above it but need not follow the views of other judges in the same court or a lower court. The Court of Appeal is normally bound by its own previous decisions and those of the House of Lords but can depart from its own decisions in civil cases in some special circumstances.
The House of Lords is not bound by its own previous decisions but will depart from them only rarely.
The Civil Court System
The County Court
This is the lowest tier of the civil court system. The county courts have jurisdiction over the recovery of debts and civil actions. In recent years, the High Court has become overloaded and therefore subject to very long delays. The financial limit on the County Court’s jurisdiction has therefore been raised substantially in order for more cases to be dealt with at this level which is more cost-effective both to the parties to litigation and to the public exchequer. The Lord Chancellor now has the power to allocate work between the High Court and the County Court. Appeals from the County Court on bankruptcy petitions are dealt with by the Chancery Division of the High Court. Appeals on other matters are heard by the Court of Appeal.
The Magistrates’ Court
The Magistrates’ Court has civil jurisdiction in family matters under which they make custody orders relating to children and maintenance orders in matrimonial and domestic cases. They also deal with adoption proceedings. They can make orders excluding a family member from the household.
Appeals on family matters are heard by the Family Division of the High Court.
The High Court
Until recently, the High Court sat in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and High Court judges travelled out from there to local courts. Nowadays, much High Court business is dealt with in High Court District Registries situated in buildings of the larger County Courts. The High Court is both an original court and an appellate court. It is possible to begin court proceedings in the High Court and it also hears appeals from lower courts. Rules of Procedure in the High Court are found in “The Rules of Supreme Court” – also known as the White Book. The High Court is divided into three divisions: the Queen’s Bench Division, the Chancery Division and the Family Division. The three courts have separate jurisdictions. No limit is set on the jurisdiction of the High Court. It serves the whole of England and Wales.
The Queen’s Bench Division
The President of the Queen’s Bench Division is the Lord Chief Justice. In addition to its criminal jurisdiction, the QBD hears tort and contract cases. The QBD also has judges who specialise in hearing commercial cases and admiralty cases in the Commercial Court and the Admiralty Court which have different procedures from the other QBD courts. In civil matters, the QBD hears appeals for District Judges in the County Courts and from some tribunals.
The Chancery Division
The President of the Division is the Lord Chancellor but in practice, he never sits. The effective head of the court is the Vice-Chancellor.
Most chancery actions are heard in London. The Chancery Division tries matters concerned with trusts, company matters, insolvency, cases relating to land and patent and trademark actions which are heard in a special court. The Court of Protection, which oversees the property and affairs of mental patients is also part of the Chancery Division.
The Family Division
The head of the court is the President of the Family Division. The court hears all defended matrimonial cases, which are rare nowadays. The Family Division makes declarations of legitimacy and of the validity or invalidity of marriages. It hears proceedings for the presumption of death, wardship, adoption, guardianship and some matrimonial property matters.The Family Division hears appeals on matrimonial and family matters from the County Court and the Magistrates’ Court.
The Court of Appeal
In both criminal and civil matters, the Court of Appeal has its own judges known as the Lords Justices of Appeal. Cases are also heard by ex officio judges (judges who sit by reason of the office they hold): the Lord Chancellor, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Family Division, the Lord Chief Justice, the Vice-Chancellor, the judges from the House of Lords and former Lord Chancellors. Usually, three judges sit together but where they are hearing a very difficult or significant point of law, five judges will hear the case. The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal hears appeals from lower civil courts.
The House of Lords
The House of Lords hears appeals from:
The Court of Appeal (when leave to appeal is granted either by the Court of Appeal or on an application for leave to the House of Lords);
The High Court (with the permission of the House of Lords Appeals Committee) – where there is a point of law of general public importance, the case can leapfrog from the High Court direct to the House of Lords.
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