A Guide to the Civil Courts in England and Wales
The UK’s court system is more complex and less neatly-structured than those of many other countries, due to a long history of continuous evolution including the combination of what were once numerous kingdoms, followed by partial devolution back to each of those kingdoms.
As such, the full court system of the UK does not really fit into a neat hierarchy, and this can make it difficult to establish the route that a case may take through the courts over the course of multiple appeals or by being “passed upward.” By focussing specifically on civil courts and concentrating on the justice system in England and Wales, however, it is possible to draw up a neat hierarchy with very little simplification and provide a much clearer explanation of the way things are.
In many, but by no means all, civil cases, the first port of call will be a tribunal. A number of these exist at the very bottom of the hierarchy, and each specialised to deal with specific types of issue. For example, there are tribunals specialising in employment, pension, and immigration cases to name just a few examples.
County Courts, Family Proceedings Court, and Magistrates Courts
Together, these courts essentially occupy next step up the ladder. The Family Proceedings Court or Magistrates Courts may handle family disputes relating to issues such as childcare arrangements and maintenance payments between separated parents. The County Courts, meanwhile, handle lower-value monetary claims, with higher-value claims often skipping this tier entirely and moving straight to the next step.
High Court of Justice
The High Court of Justice handles claims that cannot appropriately be settled in the first two tiers. There are three subdivisions of the High Court of Justice, each containing multiple courts for different kinds of matters. In brief, these are:
- High Court Chancery Division: Deals with business and financial matters. It contains the Companies Court, Patents Court, and Divisional Court.
- High Court Queen’s Bench Division: Handles such commercial and financial cases as are not dealt with by the Companies Court, “judicial reviews” which examine the actions of lower-level courts and other official bodies, and cases which are especially technically complex. Also handles shipping disputes through the Admiralty Court.
- High Court Family Division: As the name implies, this division of the High Court deals with matters of family law.
Court of Appeal, Civil Division
This court is superior to all of those at the lower levels of the hierarchy, specifically because its purpose is to provide a higher authority to turn to if you believe a judgement from a lower court was unfair or unsound. It hears appeals relating to cases taking place in courts at all of the levels detailed above.
Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
This is the highest court within the UK’s national legal system. If a person or entity believes they have solid grounds to be unhappy with a decision from the Court of Appeal, they can make a further and, usually, final appeal to the Supreme Court. Due to the UK’s membership of the European Union, there is one court with higher authority – the Court of Justice of the European Union – but claimants cannot appeal to this court directly. They may, however, be referred to it by the UK courts if appropriate.