It is necessary to have an appreciation of the legal system
An appreciation of the legal system of England and Wales
There are different courts for different types of cases. Basically, there is a heirarchy of courts with the senior court hearing the more important cases, and also appeals from the lower courts. However, the position is made more complicated because some courts hear only civil cases, others hear only criminal cases, others hear only criminal cases, whilst some hear both.
The hierarchy in civil cases is:
Court of Appeal
House of Lords
The hierarchy in criminal cases is:
High Court (Divisional)
Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)
House of Lords
Civil or criminal?
Civil cases are all those that are not criminal
Usually the distinction is obvious, it is the difference between being prosecuted for a criminal offence and being sued (for a civil wrong also called a tort)
If the aim of the person prosecuting is to punish, then it will usually be criminal. If the aim is to get compensation then the case will be civil.
The courts will apply different standards, for instance a motorist can be found guilty in a criminal case, and yet found not to be liable in a civil case.
Conviction will need proof to show guilt beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal case.
Civil case will prove liability "on the balance of probabilities" which is not as stiff a test.
Most civil cases are heard in the county court
Hears the following cases
Claims for up to £5,000
Landlord and Tenant disputes
Mortgage claims up to £30,000
Equity trust and probate
Bankruptcies and winding up
Cases are heard by a single judge or a registrar, the registrar is a junior judge, hearing the less important cases where the defendant admits liability. He will often fix maintenance payments, attachment of earnings payments and hear trials for not more than £500
The crown court hears the more important criminal cases.
They hear all the criminal cases not dealt with in the Magistrates Court. Some offences can only be tried in the Crown Court whilst others can only be heard in the magistrates court. Some offences can be tried in either.
Also crown courts hear appeals from the magistrates court. Only the defendant can appeal, and the appeal usually involves a hearing of all the evidence in front of a judge and two justices of the peace (JP's), but not a jury.
Crown courts are located throughout the county. There are three grades and depend upon the seniority of the judge.
The high court hears all the more important civil cases, and it also has a small criminal appeals jurisdiction
The high court is split between
Queens bench division
These are the most junior court and yet they are the most important. There are more than a thousand courts throughout the land and it is in these courts that the vast majority of cases are held
Most magistrates are amateurs and act as unpaid judges, receiving only expenses. Only in big cities are found full time magistrates known as "stipendiaries"
Magistrates Courts deal with both civil and criminal cases
For legal advice the magistrates turn to clerk who sits in every court. The clerk will be a solicitor or barister with at least five years experience
The press the public and the "open court principle"
Justice should not only be done, it should be seen to be done. Trials and hearings are therefore usually conducted in open court so that the press and public can attend
Contract claims 6 years
Tort claims 6 years
Squatters 12 years
Unpaid rent 6 years
Personal injury claims 3 years
Prosecutions 6 months for summary offences, no time limit for other offences