Law of the United Kingdom

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Sub-nationally, the United Kingdom has three legal systems, each of which derives from a particular geographical area and for a variety of historical reasons: English law, Scots law, and Northern Ireland law.[1] Since 2007, as a result of the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006 by Parliament, there also exists purely Welsh law. However, unlike the other three laws, this is not a separate legal system per se, being merely the primary and secondary legislation generated by the National Assembly for Wales, interpreted in accordance with the doctrines of English law, and not impacting upon English common law (except where such Welsh legislation ousts a common law rule by virtue of being a superior form of law). There is a substantial overlap between these three legal systems, and the three legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, these being England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Each legal system defaults to each jurisdiction, and court systems of each jurisdiction further the relevant system of law through jurisprudence. In private law it is possible for people in certain jurisdictions to use the law of other jurisdictions, for example a company in Edinburgh, Scotland and a company in Belfast, Northern Ireland are free to contract in English law. This is inapplicable in public law (for example, criminal law), where there are set rules of procedure in each jurisdiction. Overarching these systems is the law of the United Kingdom, also known as United Kingdom law or (more rarely) British law. British law arises where laws apply to the United Kingdom and/or its citizens as a whole, most obviously constitutional law, but also other areas, for instance tax law.

The United Kingdom does not have a single legal system because it was created by the political union of previously independent countries. Article 19 of the Treaty of Union, put into effect by the Acts of Union in 1707, created the Kingdom of Great Britain, but guaranteed the continued existence of Scotland's and England's separate legal systems.[2] The Acts of Union of 1800, which combined Great Britain and Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, contained no equivalent provisions but preserved the principle of different courts to be held in Ireland, of which the part called Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the highest court in the land for all criminal and civil cases in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and for all civil cases in Scots law.[3] The Supreme Court is also the final court (in the normal sense of the term) for interpreting United Kingdom law. Note, however, that unlike in other systems (for example America), the Supreme Court cannot strike down statutes, and its cases can be expressly overriden by Parliament, by virtue of the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty. The Supreme Court came into being in October 2009, replacing the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.[4][5] In England and Wales, the court system is 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 Courts of Northern Ireland follow the same pattern. In Scotland the chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. Sheriff courts have no equivalent outside Scotland, as they deal with both criminal and civil caseloads.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the British overseas territories, and the British Crown dependencies. There are also immigration courts with UK-wide jurisdiction — the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and Special Immigration Appeals Commission. The Employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal have jurisdiction throughout Great Britain, but not Northern Ireland.

European Union law is actively transposed into the UK legal systems under the UK parliament's law-making power, in fulfillment of its EU treaty obligations, not inherently by acts of the European Union Parliament.

Three legal systems

There are three distinct legal jurisdictions in the United Kingdom: England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.[6] Each has its own legal system, distinct history and origins.

English law

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.[7] 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.[3]

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

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,[8] and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

Welsh law

The main entrance to Cardiff Crown Court

Welsh law is the primary and secondary legislation generated by the National Assembly for Wales, using the 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.[14]