The courts in the UK serve two functions. They are a mechanism that people can use to resolve disputes, but they also interpret the law. A decision in a case not only resolves the dispute between the parties to that particular case, but in many circumstances can also provide guidance to others as to how the law will be interpreted by the courts. Many of the basic principles of UK law have arisen out of decisions of the courts rather than statutes passed by the legislature.
The interpretive function of the courts becomes more significant as a case moves up the court hierarchy. So a Supreme Court decision that is published and cited as authority in other cases will have a more far-reaching effect than, say, an unpublished tribunal decision that simply applies well-established law and is really only of significance to the parties to that particular case.
There are a wide variety of different types of courts and tribunals in the UK, some of which are highly specialised and deal only with certain types of matters. But all of the courts and tribunals fall, more or less, into a fairly well-defined hierarchy. This overview provides a brief description of the various levels of courts and tribunals in the UK, starting with the Supreme Court at the top.
One final note: as you may already know, the UK has three legal systems (i.e., England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). While the courts in Northern Ireland may have the same names and structure as the courts in England and Wales, they are governed by different laws. For the purposes of this overview, however, we’ve lumped them together.
Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
On 1 October 2009, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom assumed jurisdiction as the highest and final court of appeal for all cases originating in the United Kingdom (except for most Scottish criminal cases, for which the final court of appeal remains the Scottish High Court of Justiciary).
Under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Supreme Court took over functions previously from the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.
Essentially, the Supreme Court hears and decides appeals from lower courts on matters that are of general public importance. For example, if there is an unresolved question about how a particular statute is to be interpreted, the Supreme Court might hear an appeal that raises that point in order to try to settle the uncertainty surrounding it.
The Supreme Court hears appeals of all type of civil cases and all criminal cases (except, as mentioned, ones criminal cases from Scotland).
Court of Appeal of England and Wales / Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland
For most cases in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, the Court of Appeal will be the final court of appeal. The Court of Appeal is split into the Criminal Division and the Civil Division, with its jurisdiction divided accordingly.
High Court of Justiciary (Scotland)
Sitting as the Court of Criminal Appeal , the High Court of Justiciary is normally the final court of appeal for criminal cases arising in Scotland. (NB. In cases involving “devolution issues”, however, you may have a right to appeal above the High Court of Justiciary to the Privy Council, located in the Supreme Court Building in London.) The High Court may also sit as a court of first instance in more serious or complex Scottish criminal cases.
Inner House of the Court of Session (Scotland)
Thus is the final court of appeal for civil claims in Scotland before matters go to the Supreme Court for the United Kingdom. Note, in rare cases, the Court may also stand as a court of first instance.
High Court of Justice of England and Wales / High Court of Justice of Northern Ireland
The High Court is both an appellate court (for certain decisions from lower courts and tribunals) and a court of first instance for cases of particular significance or value.
The High Court has three divisions, which are the Queen’s Bench Division, the Chancery Division and the Family Division. The Queen’s Bench Division hears cases involving contract and tort law matters, and also houses the Commercial Court and the Administrative Court (among others). The Chancery Division handles cases involving trust law, probate matters, tax and bankruptcy, and houses the Companies Court and the Patents Court. The Family Division handles matrimonial and other family law cases.
Outer House of the Court of Session (Scotland)
General trial court for civil matters in Scotland. Usually handles more complex and higher value claims. Also conducts judicial review of decisions/actions in inferior Scottish courts/tribunals (including criminal cases).
County Court (England and Wales; Northern Ireland)
Most civil litigation takes place in the County Courts. Routine contract and tort matters, and cases involving, say, debt collection or a “slip and fall” accident are almost always within the jurisdiction of the County Courts. For the consumer or small business person who gets involved in relatively routine litigation, the County Courts are likely to be the venue.
Sheriffs Principal (Scotland)
Hear appeals from Sheriffs’ Courts (see below) on civil matters only.
Crown Court (England and Wales; Northern Ireland)
The Crown Court handles trials of serious criminal offences, or “indictable offences”. An indictable offence is an offence where the defendant is charged by indictment and normally has a right to a trial by jury. The Crown Court also hears certain appeals from the Magistrates’ Courts, and can also be involved in sentencing a person convicted of a crime in the Magistrates’ Courts.
Sheriffs’ Court (Scotland)
In Scotland, process either serious (indictable) criminal offences or lower value/less complex civil claims. Appeals go to the Sheriff Principal or Court of Session.
District Courts (Scotland)
Justices of the Peace preside over trials of relatively minor criminal offences.
The tribunal system in the UK is extensive and handles an extremely wide variety of legal issues.
The tribunals are managed by the Tribunals Service, which is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice. Recently, the tribunals have been re-organised, so that many tribunals have now been consolidated into a single service known as the First-Tier Tribunal. The First-Tier Tribunal includes tribunals such as the Mental Health Review Tribunal, the Immigration Services Tribunal, the General and Special Commissioners of HM Revenue & Customs, along with many others.
There is also an Upper Tribunal, which handles appeals of matters heard by the First-Tier Tribunal.
The Employment Tribunals are not included in the First-Tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal, but they are also managed by the Tribunals Service. The Employment Tribunal is the first-stage tribunal for employment matters, and the Employment Appeals Tribunal hears appeals from the Employment Tribunal.
The Magistrates Courts try summary criminal offences, which are non-indictable offences that the court can try in a summary manner without a jury. The Magistrates Courts also handle certain domestic matters and youth court matters.
Going to Court
For civil disputes, the courts strongly encourage litigants to see the courts as a last resort, after negotiation, mediation or other means of alternative dispute resolution have failed. Going to court inevitably involves the risk of cost exposure, and represents a significant commitment of time and energy that can be a serious distraction for, say, a small business person or an individual with a family, a job or other similar responsibilities.
If you find that you have no choice but to take a civil matter to court, then you will almost certainly need good legal advice. Although there are mechanisms, such as the small claims procedure in the County Courts, for do-it-yourself litigation in very simple matters, most litigation requires advice. The inexperienced (or even experienced) DIY litigant can very quickly find himself out of his depth and with substantial exposure to costs.