The courts and tribunals of England and Wales

There are different types of court to deal with different jurisdictions (areas of law), and within each category there may be different levels of court, with higher courts hearing more serious cases or appeals from courts lower down in the system.

The main different types of jurisdiction in England and Wales are as follows:

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

The different levels of court within each of these areas of law are set out below. But the most senior courts, which hear appeals from lower courts, deal with all these areas of law.

Some courts referred to in the law reports on ICLR.3 are no longer in existence, or have changed their names. For more information on these, see the article on Older Courts and Tribunals.

See the Judiciary website for a chart showing the current overall Structure of the Courts.

Appellate Courts

The UK Supreme Court

At the top of the tree sits the UK Supreme Court. This was established in 2009, replacing the House of Lords as the final court of appeal in the UK for all civil cases, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its judges are known as Justices of the Supreme Court (JSC) and are led by a President and Deputy President.

For more information, see the UK Supreme Court website.

For more information about the House of Lords as a final court, see the article on Older Courts and Tribunals.

The Privy Council

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council occupies the same building as the UK Supreme Court and the same judges sit in it, but they hear appeals from UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and those Commonwealth countries that have retained the appeal to Her Majesty in Council or, in the case of Republics, to the Judicial Committee.

For more information see the Privy Council website.

The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal of England and Wales sits in two divisions:

  • the Criminal Division, which hears appeals from the Crown Court, and
  • 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) and the 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.

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.)

Criminal Courts

The Crown Court

The Crown Court

  • holds trials of more serious criminal offences;
  • deals with sentencing in cases where the defendant has either pleaded guilty already, or been convicted and referred for sentencing by a magistrate’s court because of the relative seriousness of the offence;
  • hears appeals from magistrates’ courts.

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.

The Crown Court is a single entity, which sits in a number of locations. It is therefore more accurate to speak of the Crown Court at Reading than Reading Crown Court. Its most famous and senior location is the Central Criminal Court (CCC) at Old Bailey in London, often referred to simply as The Bailey.

Magistrates’ Courts

Magistrates deal with over 90% of criminal cases. The criminal jurisdiction of magistrates’ courts consists of:

  • deciding less serious cases, known as summary offences,
  • Deciding medium serious offences, referred to as ‘triable either way’, unless the defendant insists on their right to trial in the Crown Court,
  • Dealing with pre-trial issues in relation to the most serious offences, such as bail, reporting restrictions etc.
  • Sending cases in which the defendant has pleaded or been found guilty to the Crown Court for sentencing, if their own sentencing powers are insufficient.

Cases in a magistrates’ court are heard either by a bench of three magistrates, or Justices of the Peace, or by a single district judge or deputy district judge.

Justices of the Peace, or JPs, are adult volunteers from the local community who decide cases that don’t involve complex questions of law. They need not have formal legal qualification, but receive advice on matters of law and practice by a legally qualified justices’ clerk. The main one, who sits in the middle and presides over the proceedings, is described as the chair.

District judges are full time members of the judiciary and are generally assigned more complex cases in the magistrates’ court.

An appeal from a magistrates’ court can go either to the Crown Court or, if it involves a procedural error, to the Administrative Court (part of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court).

(Magistrates’ courts also deal with family cases. We say more about this in Family Courts.)

Youth Courts

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.

Civil courts

The High Court

The High Court is divided into three main divisions:

  1. The Queen’s Bench Division (or King’s Bench Division)
  2. The Chancery Division
  3. The Family Division.

These in turn are further sub-divided. There is a diagram on the Judiciary website.

Queen’s Bench Division

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 it there are a number of specialist courts and lists:

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

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

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.

When the monarch is male, this division is known as the King’s Bench Division (KBD).

Chancery Division

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. It includes the following specialist courts and lists:

  • Business List
  • Competition List
  • Insolvency and Companies List
  • Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (formerly the Patents County Court: see County Courts)
  • 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.

Family Division

The Family Division (Fam D) deals with divorce, financial maintenance, and cases relating to the care and welfare of children. It also hears appeals from the Family Court. We say more about the work of the Family Division under Family Courts.

The Court of Protection (CoP) makes decisions about financial matters and welfare, including medical care, for people who lack the capacity to do so. It is not technically a part of the Family Division of the High Court, but a separate institution, with a jurisdiction founded on the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and its own set of procedural rules. But it shares a building and many features with the Family Division, and the President of the Family Division (P) is also President of the Court of Protection (P).

There is also a Deputy President of the Court of Protection. The other judges in the Court of Protection are High Court judges, deputy High Court judges, circuit judges and district judges.

For more, see the Court of Protection website.

Business and Property Courts

From June 2017 the specialist civil courts were grouped together as the Business and Property Courts of England and Wales. This group combines many of the specialist courts listed above under the Queen’s Bench and Chancery Divisions, and sits in the Rolls Building in London, and in centres around the country, including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol and Cardiff, with plans for extension to Newcastle and Liverpool.

County Courts

County courts were first introduced in 1846 to provide local justice in those less important or valuable cases that did not need to be heard in the High Court. The judges who sit in county courts are circuit judges or district judges.

The introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules in 1998 harmonised procedure in all civil courts: previously, there were separate County Court Rules and, for the High Court, something then called the Rules of the Supreme Court (RSC). Now the CPR covers both.

Until 2014, the County Court also dealt with family cases, but from April 2014 these have been dealt with by the Family Court. (See Family Courts.)

The types of civil case dealt with by county courts is governed in part by financial limits: above a certain value, cases are heard in the High Court instead. There are procedural rules for the transfer of borderline cases, or those involving particular issues, from one to the other.

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.

Tribunals

Historically, tribunals have been created by statute to deal with particular types of regulatory, disciplinary or administrative matter. Unlike the courts, which are separate for England and Wales from those of Scotland and Northern Ireland, the tribunal system is UK-wide.

Employment Tribunals

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 system is slightly different. The functions of employment tribunals are performed by Industrial Tribunals (in relation to employment law) and the Fair Employment Tribunals (in relation to discrimination) in Northern Ireland.

Employment Appeal Tribunal

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) hears appeals from employment tribunals. It is equivalent in status and as a court of record 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, in England and Wales, 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

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, in England and Wales, 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.

See also: Competition Appeal Tribunal website.

First Tier Tribunal

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 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

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, like the Employment Apeal Tribunal and the Competition Appeal Tribunal established under earlier legislation, 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, in England and Wales, 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.

See Judiciary’s Tribunals organisation chart.

Military courts

Court Martial

The court martial has jurisdiction to try any “service offence”, ie any offence committed by a member of the armed forces under relevant legislation, including the Armed Forces Act 2006, Armed Forces Act 1991 and Reserve Forces Act 1996, 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.

Court Martial Appeal Court (Ct MAC)

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.

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.

Service Civilian Court

The Service Civilian 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. Its jurisdiction is roughly equivalent to civilian magistrates’ courts.

Coroners’ Courts

Coroners’ courts fall outside the unified courts and tribunals system of England and Wales. There are 92 separate coroners’ jurisdictions in England and Wales, 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.

There is no right of appeal as such from a coroner’s decision (such as a refusal to hold an inquest, or some flaw in the process) or from an inquest verdict. However, it is sometimes possible to challenge a coroner’s decision, or the outcome of an inquest, by way of an application under section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988 (with the fiat, or authorisation, of the of the Attorney General), or by way of an application for judicial review.