Three legal systems
There are three distinct legal jurisdictions in the United Kingdom: England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each has its own legal system, distinct history and origins.
English law refers to the legal system administered by the courts in England and Wales, which rule on both civil and criminal matters. English law is considered as the original of the common law and is based on those principles. English law can be described as having its own legal doctrine, distinct from civil law legal systems since 1189.
There has been no major codification of the law, rather the law is developed by judges in court, applying statute, precedent and case-by-case reasoning to give explanatory judgments of the relevant legal principles. These judgments are binding in future similar cases (stare decisis), and for this reason are often reported.
The courts of England and Wales are headed by the Senior Courts of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land for both criminal and civil appeal cases in England and Wales and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the same jurisdiction, and often has persuasive effect in its other jurisdictions. On appeal, a court may overrule the decisions of its inferior courts, such as county courts (civil) and magistrates' courts (criminal). The High Court may also quash on judicial review both administrative decisions of the Government and delegated legislation. The ultimate body of appeal for all criminal and civil cases in England and Wales (and Northern Ireland, and for all civil cases in Scots law) is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which took over this function from the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (usually just referred to as "The House of Lords") in October 2009.
After the Acts of Union, in 1707 English law became one of two legal systems in different parts of the same united kingdom and has been influenced by Scots law, most notably in the development and integration of the law merchant by Lord Mansfield and in time the development of the law of negligence. Scottish influence may have influenced the abolition of the forms of action in the nineteenth century and extensive procedural reforms in the twentieth. Since the accession of the United Kingdom to the European Communities in 1973 English law has also been affected by European law under the Treaty of Rome.
Northern Ireland law
The Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The law of Northern Ireland is a common law system. It is administered by the courts of Northern Ireland, with ultimate appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in both civil and criminal matters. The law of Northern Ireland is closely similar to English law, the rules of common law having been imported into the Kingdom of Ireland under English rule. However, there are important differences.
The sources of the law of Northern Ireland are Irish common law, and statute law. Of the latter, statutes of the Parliaments of Ireland, of the United Kingdom and of Northern Ireland are in force, and latterly statutes of the devolved Assembly. The courts of Northern Ireland are headed by the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland, consisting of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, the Northern Ireland High Court of Justice and the Northern Ireland Crown Court. Below that are county courts and magistrates' courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land for both criminal and civil appeal cases in Northern Ireland and any decision it makes is binding on every other court in the same jurisdiction, and often has persuasive effect in its other jurisdictions.
Scots law is a unique legal system with an ancient basis in Roman law. Grounded in uncodified civil law dating back to the Corpus Juris Civilis, it also features elements of common law with medieval sources. Thus Scotland has a pluralistic, or 'mixed', legal system, comparable to that of South Africa, and, to a lesser degree, the partly codified pluralistic systems of Louisiana and Quebec. Since the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain under the 1707 Acts of Union, Scots law has shared a legislature with England and Wales, and while each retained fundamentally different legal systems, the 1707 Union brought English and Welsh influence upon Scots law, and vice versa. Since the accession of the United Kingdom to the European Communities in 1973 Scots law has also been affected by European law under the Treaty of Rome. The establishment of Scottish Parliament in 1999, which legislates within domestic areas of legislative competence, has created a further major source of Scots law.
The chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom serves as the highest court of appeal for civil cases under Scots law, with leave to appeal from the Court of Session not required as a general rule. However unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom the Supreme Court has no role as a highest court of appeal for criminal cases. Sheriff courts deal with most civil and criminal cases including conducting criminal trials with a jury, known as sheriff solemn court, or with a sheriff and no jury, known as sheriff summary court. The sheriff courts provide a local court service with 49 sheriff courts organised across six sheriffdoms. The Scots legal system is unique in having three possible verdicts for a criminal trial: "guilty", "not guilty" and "not proven". Both "not guilty" and "not proven" result in an acquittal with no possibility of retrial.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice is the member of the Scottish Government responsible for Police Scotland, the courts and criminal justice, and the Scottish Prison Service, which manages the prisons in Scotland.
The main entrance to Cardiff Crown Court
Welsh law is the primary and secondary legislation generated by the National Assembly for Wales, using devolved authority granted in the Government of Wales Act 2006 and in effect since May 2007. Each piece of Welsh legislation is known as an Act of the Assembly.
However, as there is no criminal law within contemporary Welsh law, Wales is not generally considered a fourth jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. This is because the judiciary and the courts follow England and Wales law, which is made by the United Kingdom Parliament, and is not specific to Wales. Although Welsh law is recognised as separate in operation, this is not sufficient for Wales to constitute a separate legal jurisdiction.
A commission set up in 2017 by the First Minister of Wales known as "The Commission on Justice in Wales" and chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, is looking into the operation of justice in the country. It aims to further clarify the legal and political identity of Wales within the UK constitution, which may include the creation of a distinct legal jurisdiction. This would formalise Wales as the fourth jurisdiction of the UK.