Courts of England and Wales

The courts of England and Wales[1]

Introduction to Courts of England and Wales[edit]

The court system in England and Wales is administered by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice. HMCTS was created in 2011, by the merger of Her Majesty's Courts Service and the Tribunals Service.

The United Kingdom does not have a single, unified legal system - England and Wales has one system, whilst Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own systems.

Court structure[edit]

There are different types of courts in England and Wales to deal with different areas of law, with higher courts in the system hearing appeals from courts lower down in the system.

The main types of courts in England and Wales are:

  • Criminal
  • Civil
  • Family
  • Tribunals
  • Military
  • Coroners

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom[edit]

The Supreme Court (UKSC) is the highest appeal court in the United Kingdom and was established in October 2009, replacing the House of Lords as the final court of appeal. [2] Its judges are known as Justices of the Supreme Court and are led by a President and Deputy President.

The Supreme Court has a separate administration from the other courts in England and Wales, with its administration led by a Chief Executive, who is appointed by the President of the Supreme Court. [3]

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for all United Kingdom civil cases, and criminal cases from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is also the highest court of appeal for matters on devolution, a role previously held by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

In addition, the Supreme Court also hears appeals from Scotland's Court of Session as well as from Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal, and in some limited cases from Northern Ireland's High Court.

All Supreme Court cases are reported and published on their website (via the Latest judgments section and Decided Cases area) as well as on BAILII.

Judicial Committee of the Privy Council[edit]

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) is the highest court of appeal for many Commonwealth countries, as well as the United Kingdom's overseas territories, crown dependencies, and military sovereign base areas. It also hears very occasional appeals from a number of ancient and ecclesiastical courts. [4]

The JCPC hears appeals from the following crown dependencies:

  • Jersey
  • Guernsey
  • Isle of Man

The JCPC also hears appeals from the following countries:

  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • The Bahamas
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • Cook Islands and Niue (Associated States of New Zealand)
  • Grenada
  • Jamaica
  • St Christopher and Nevis
  • Saint Lucia
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Tuvalu

The JCPC also hears appeals from the following independent republics from within the Commonwealth:

  • the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
  • Kiribati
  • Mauritius

The JCPC also hears appeals from the following overseas territories:

  • Anguilla
  • Bermuda
  • British Antarctic Territory
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Falkland Islands
  • Gibraltar
  • Montserrat
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
  • Turks and Caicos Islands

The JCPC also hears appeals from the following sovereign bases in Cyprus:

  • Akrotiri
  • Dhekelia

The JCPC also hears appeals to local heads of state for the Court of Appeal of Brunei to the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan, which the opinion of the court is reported to the Sultan instead of to Her Majesty.

Senior Courts of England and Wales[edit]

The Senior Courts of England and Wales were originally created by the Judicature Acts. Two changes in legislation, firstly in 1981 [5] and then again, in 2005 [6], renamed the courts to distinguish it further from the new Supreme Court. [7]

The Senior Courts of England and Wales, along with the Tribunals and lower courts, consist of the following courts:

  • Court of Appeal (which is further sub-divided into):
  • Criminal Division
  • Civil Division
  • High Court of Justice
  • Crown Court

Court of Appeal[edit]

The Court of Appeal sits in two divisions:

  • the Criminal Division, which hears appeals from the Crown Court
  • the Civil Division, which hears appeals in civil and family matters from the High Court, Family Court, senior tribunals and county courts

The judges of the Court of Appeal are:

  • the Lord Chief Justice (LCJ)
  • the Master of the Rolls (MR)
  • the President of the Queen’s Bench Division (P)
  • the President of the Family Division (P)
  • the Chancellor of the High Court (C)
  • Lord or Lady Justices (LJ)

Most full appeals are heard by three judges, but preliminary or less important hearings may be dealt with by one or two judges.

Most, but not all, Appeal Court cases are reported.

The High Court[edit]

The High Court functions both as a civil court of first instance decisions, as well as an appellate court of criminal and civil cases from lower courts. It consists of three main divisions:

  • The Queen’s Bench Division (or King’s Bench Division) [8]
  • The Chancery Division
  • The Family Division

These divisions are not separate courts, but have separate procedures and practices suited to their purposes. Particular kinds of cases will be assigned to each division depending on their subject matter.

The High Court's division are further sub-divided. There is a diagram on the Judiciary website which aims to illustrate this.

Some High Court cases are reported.

Queen's Bench Division[edit]

The Queen’s Bench Division (QBD) deals with general civil disputes involving things like negligence, breach of contract, defamation, and breach of statutory duty.

Within this division of the High Court, there are a number of specialist courts:

  • Administrative Court (Admin)
  • Admiralty Court (Admlty)
  • Commercial Court (Comm)
  • Mercantile Court and Circuit Commercial Courts
  • Planning Court (part of the Administrative Court)
  • Technology and Construction Court (TCC)

The judges of the Queen’s Bench Division are:

  • the President of the Queen’s Bench Division (P)
  • High Court judges (J)
  • deputy High Court judges and circuit judges sitting as High Court judges

More serious cases in the Administrative Court may be dealt with by two or more judges, sitting as a Divisional Court (DC).

Chancery Division[edit]

The Chancery Division (Ch D) deals with a number of specialist areas of civil law to do with companies, insolvency, real property, trusts, tax, and wills.

Within this division of the High Court, there are a number of specialist courts (or lists):

  • Business List
  • Competition List
  • Insolvency and Companies List
  • Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (formerly the Patents County Court)
  • Intellectual Property List
  • Patents Court
  • Property, Trusts and Probate List
  • Revenue List

The judges of the Chancery Division are:

  • the Chancellor of the Chancery Division (C)
  • High Court judges (J)
  • deputy High Court judges and circuit judges sitting as High Court judges

Business and Property Courts[edit]

The Business and Property Courts of England and Wales was launched in July 2017. [9] It encompasses several specialist courts and lists from the Queen's Bench Division and Chancery Division into an umbrella structure, in order to preserve traditional practices and procedures but also allow for the flexibility in the cross-deployment of judges across the country. [10]

The courts which now falls under the Business and Property Courts from the Queen's Bench Division are:

  • Admiralty Court
  • Commercial Court
  • Technology and Construction Court

The courts which now falls under the Business and Property Courts from the Chancery Division are:

  • Business List
  • Competition List
  • Insolvency and Companies List
  • Intellectual Property List
  • Property, Trusts and Probate List
  • Revenue List

Family Division[edit]

The Family Division deals with a personal matters, such as divorce, children, probate, and medical treatment. This division exercises jurisdiction to hear all cases relating to children's welfare. It also hears appeal from the Family Court.

The Court of Protection[edit]

The Court of Protection is not technically part of the Family Division, but is a separate institution established by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 [11] with its own set of procedural rules relating to financial matters and welfare, especially medical care for people who lack capacity. It does, however, share the same building and features with the Family Division as the President of the Family Division is also the President of the Court of Protection.

Crown Court[edit]

The Crown Court functions both as a criminal court of first instance decisions, as well as an appellate court of criminal cases from lower courts (such as the magistrates' courts).

The Crown Court also holds trials of more serious criminal offences and deals with sentencing in cases where the defendant has either plead guilty or been convicted and referred to sentencing.

The Crown Court is a single entity, which sits in a number of locations, replacing the assizes in which High Court judges would periodically travel around the country to hear cases. Its most famous and senior location is the Central Criminal Court (CCC) at Old Bailey in London, often referred to simply as The Old Bailey.

Most trials in the Crown Court are conducted with a jury. Depending on the type of case, the judge will be either a High Court judge (J), a Circuit Judge (HHJ), or a part-time judge known as a Recorder.

Lower Courts of England and Wales[edit]

The lower, or subordinate, courts in England and Wales consist of:

  • County Court
  • Family Court
  • Magistrates' courts
  • Youth courts

County Court[edit]

There are approximately 160 county courts that hear cases within their geographic catchment area. These courts deal with civil (non-criminal and non-family) cases. The county court hears (subject to exceptions) money claims with a value up to and including £100,000 and claims for damages for personal injury with a value up to £50,000. Cases are ordinarily held where the defendant resides.

There are some specialist county courts, such as the Patents County Court (renamed Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC) in 2013) and the Mercantile Court (now known as Circuit Commercial Courts), which deal with particular types of subject matter in cases which do not need to be heard in the High Court.

Family Court[edit]

The Family Court was established in 2014. It has national jurisdiction to hear all family cases in England and Wales and sits in many locations, most usually in County Court centres and magistrates courts where family work was previously heard.

Magistrates' courts[edit]

These courts hear all criminal cases at first instance. Less serious cases and those involving juveniles are tried in the Magistrates' Courts, as well as some civil cases.

Magistrates deal with three kinds of offence: summary (less serious cases); either-way (cases that can be heard either in a Magistrates' Court or before a judge and a jury in the Crown Court); and indictable-only (serious cases).

Youth courts[edit]

A youth court is a magistrates’ court where the procedures are less formal than in an adult court. It deals with all criminal cases involving juveniles (aged under 18) except for homicide, which has to go the Crown Court. The sentences imposed by youth courts are specially designed to deal with the needs of young offenders. Although members of the press may attend hearings in a youth court, they are subject to reporting restrictions in order to protect the anonymity of the defendant.

Special courts and tribunals[edit]

In addition to the above system, there are many other specialist courts and tribunals.

Specialist courts[edit]

Coroners' courts[edit]

Coroners’ courts fall outside the courts and tribunals system of England and Wales. There are 92 separate coroners’ jurisdictions, each of them locally funded and resourced by local authorities. Their role dates back to the 12th century.

Coroners’ courts investigate and determine the cause of any sudden, violent or unnatural death. Coroners and deputy coroners are either qualified lawyers or medical practitioners. They are not categorised as members of the judiciary, though serving judges may also sit as coroners. The coroner’s jurisdiction is territorial – it is the location of the dead body which dictates which coroner has jurisdiction in any particular case.

The Chief Coroner, an office created by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, is now head of the coroner system, assuming overall responsibility and providing national leadership for coroners in England and Wales.

Ecclesiastical courts[edit]

The jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts has narrowed principally to matters of church property and errant clergy. Each diocese has a 'chancellor' (either a barrister or solicitor) who acts as a judge in the consistory court of the diocese.

Appeals lie to the Arches Court (in Canterbury) and the Chancery Court (in York), and then to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved (CECR). An appeal from the CECR is referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Military courts[edit]

Military courts of the United Kingdom include

  • the Service Civilian Court

The court deals with offences against service law which have been committed outside the British Isles by a civilian who is subject to service discipline. The court sits in foreign bases and its jurisdiction is equivalent to civilian magistrates’ courts.

  • the Summary Appeal Court

Most minor offences against military discipline are heard by a commanding officer at a summary hearing, though a person charged with such an offence has the right to elect to be tried by court martial instead.

Appeals against a summary decision are then heard in the Summary Appeal Court, and take the form of a re-hearing before a judge advocate.

  • the Court Martial

The court martial has jurisdiction to try any “service offence”, i.e any offence committed by a member of the armed forces under relevant legislation, as well as any civil (non-military) criminal offence committed by service personnel.

The court martial sits in permanent military court centres at Catterick and Bulford and, when required, at overseas bases in Germany and Cyprus. Its status is similar to that of the Crown Court, though the procedures may be different and all the participants, except for the defendant’s representative, are in uniform.

The judges who sit in the court martial are known as Judge Advocates. Cases are brought by the Services Prosecuting Authority, which is led by the Director of Service Prosecutions.

  • the Court Martial Appeal Court

The Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, can sit as the Court Martial Appeal Court to hear appeals from a court martial against conviction or sentence.

Decisions of the Court Martial Appeal Court may be published and reported, and can be cited where relevant as precedents in the same way as civilian court decisions.

Tribunals[edit]

Historically, tribunals have been created by statute to deal with particular types of regulatory, disciplinary or administrative matter. Tribunals, unlike the courts of England and Wales, apply to the entirety of the United Kingdom.

Some specialist court cases heard in tribunals are reported.

Employment Tribunals[edit]

Formerly known as industrial tribunals, employment tribunals (ET) in England and Wales deal with disputes relating to breaches of statutory employment law and discrimination in the workplace. They consist of a chair person, who is legally qualified, and two lay assessors, representing employers, and unions respectively.

There is a similar system of employment tribunals in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the functions of employment tribunals are performed by Industrial Tribunals (in relation to employment law) and the Fair Employment Tribunals (in relation to discrimination).

Employment Appeal Tribunals[edit]

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) hears appeals from employment tribunals. It is equivalent to the High Court. The judges in the EAT are High Court judges, or their Scottish equivalent, though they may also sit with assessors, and their decisions are frequently reported as precedents.

Appeals from the Employment Appeal Tribunal are heard by the Court of Appeal, Civil Division, or the Court of Session in Scotland. Appeals (on a point of law) are heard by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. Final appeals are heard the UK Supreme Court.

Competition Appeal Tribunal[edit]

The Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) hears appeals from decisions by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the regulators in the telecommunications, electricity, gas, water, railways and air traffic services sectors.

It was created by the Enterprise Act 2002 as part of the Competition Service (CS) and its decisions are equivalent in status to those of the High Court and may be reported as precedents. It is presided over or chaired by a High Court judge, who sits with two ordinary (non lawyer) members.

Appeals from the Competition Appeal Tribunal are heard by the Court of Appeal, Civil Division, or by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland or the Court of Session in Scotland. Final appeals from any of those courts are heard the UK Supreme Court.

First Tier Tribunal[edit]

The First Tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal is part of a system of a unified tribunals system established under the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 with a jurisdiction across the United Kingdom. It replaces a number of earlier, separate tribunals such as the Lands Tribunal, the Immigration Appeal Tribunal and the Special Commissioners of Income Tax.

The organisation chart for tribunals[12]

The TCEA also established the Tribunals judiciary with its own unified hierarchy under the Senior President of Tribunals.

The First Tier Tribunal sits in seven different chambers, dealing with various administrative disputes:

  1. General Regulatory Chamber
  2. Health, Education and Social Care Chamber
  3. Immigration and Asylum Chamber
  4. Property Chamber
  5. Social Entitlement Chamber
  6. Tax Chamber
  7. War Pensions and armed Forces Compensation Chamber


Upper Tribunal[edit]

The Upper Tribunal hears appeals from the First Tier Tribunal, but divides these among only four different chambers.

  1. Administrative Appeals Chamber
  2. Immigration and Asylum Chamber
  3. Lands Chamber
  4. Tax and Chancery Chamber


The Upper Tribunal is a superior court of record of equivalent status to the High Court of England and Wales. Some judicial reviews from the First Tier Tribunal, if they fall outside the jurisdiction of the Upper Tribunal, may be heard by the Administrative Court in the Queen’s Bench Division.

Appeals from the Upper Tribunal are heard by the Court of Appeal, Civil Division, or by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland or the Court of Session in Scotland. Final appeals from any of those courts are heard the UK Supreme Court.

References[edit]

  1. The structure of the courts, judiciary.uk < accessed 23 January 2020 >
  2. About the Supreme Court, Supreme Court website < accessed 17 November 2019 >
  3. Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (s.48), legislation.gov.uk < accessed 17 November 2019 >
  4. Role of the JCPC, JCPC website < accessed 17 November 2019 >
  5. Supreme Court Act 1981, legislation.gov.uk < accessed 18 November 2019 >
  6. Constitutional Reform Act 2005, legislation.gov.uk < accessed 17 November 2019 >
  7. The Court of Appeal and the High Court are collectively known as the Senior Courts, although prior to 2009 they were known as the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Act 1981 was then renamed the Senior Courts Act 1981 once the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established the new Supreme Court.
  8. When the monarch is male, this division is known as the King’s Bench Division (KBD).
  9. Business and Property Courts: Media Release, Judiciary website < accessed 18 November 2019 >
  10. The main court sits in the Rolls Building in London, however, it also has centres in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol, and Cardiff, with plans for an extensions to Newcastle and Liverpool.
  11. Mental Capacity Act 2005, legislation.gov.uk < accessed 17 November 2019 >
  12. Orgnisation chart for Tribunals, judiciary.uk < accessed 23 December 2019 >