Features - A Guide to the UK Legal SystemBy Sarah Carter, Published on July 31, 2000
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Sarah Carter is Law Librarian at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. She has been active in organising electronic legal information since it became available, and especially since the growth of the internet. She has written extensively on the subject in the Law Librarian and other publications. She was on the editorial committee of Moys Classification and contributed to the 3rd edition, published in 1992. Her website LAWLINKS is internationally recognised, and she was awarded the Wallace Breem Memorial Award by BIALL (British & Irish Association of Law Librarians) in 2000. At the same time she published a book based on LAWLINKS (Carter, S. Lawlinks. Cavendish, 2000). In an earlier librarianship role she wrote on the subject of women’s studies.
- The UK Legal System
- Background and Constitution
- The Court System
- Primary Sources of Law: Introduction
- Electronic Sources for Legislation
- Case Law
- Electronic Sources for Case Law
- Indexes and Digests
- Legislation and Case Law Indexes
- Periodical Indexes
- Parliamentary Information
- United Kingdom Government
- Official Publications
- Law Reform
- Case Law
- Northern Ireland
- Case Law
- The Legal Profession
- Legal Education
- Legal Publishers
- Legal News & Current Awareness
- Standard Texts
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of four countries forming three distinct jurisdictions each having its own court system and legal profession: England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom was established in 1801 with the union of Great Britain and Ireland, but only achieved its present form in 1922 with the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the independent Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland).
The UK joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973, since when it has been a requirement to incorporate European legislation into UK law, and to recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in matters of EU law.
There have been significant constitutional reforms since the Labour Government came into power in 1997, which make any description of the UK legal system before then out of date. The Labour Government immediately instituted a process of devolution, i.e. devolving certain areas of government to the component countries of the UK: a separate Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly were established following referendums in the countries concerned. Ireland already had its Assembly, although this was not in operation (see below under <Northern Ireland>) in Wales and Northern Ireland. In the context of these new legislatures the English Parliament is often referred to as ‘Westminster’. These devolved governments are dealt with in separate sections <below>.
The UK is a signatory of the European Convention of Human Rights, and this has recently been incorporated into UK law with the passing of the Human Rights Act 1988. This allows for the provisions of the Convention to be applied directly by the UK courts.
There is no written constitution. The Queen is the Head of State, although in practice the supreme authority of the Crown is carried by the government of the day. The legislature is a bicameral Parliament. The House of Commons consists of 659 Members of Parliament (MPs), elected by simple majority vote in a general election every five years, although the Government has the right to call an election at any time before then, and in practice usually brings the date forward to secure electoral advantage. The House of Lords until recently consisted of life peers, awarded peerages for public service, and a large number of hereditary peers, whose membership of the House of Lords depended on their aristocratic birth. The Labour Government has started the long-overdue process of reform of the House of Lords by abolishing the voting rights of all the hereditary peers apart from 92 who remain until the House is fully reformed. Proposals put forward by the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords have yet to be decided upon.
The Government is made up of the Prime Minister, formally appointed by the Queen, and who is normally the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons, and ministers with departmental responsibilities, of whom the Ministers of State form the Cabinet. The ministerial posts are the choice of the Prime Minister.
The constitutional law of the UK is regarded as consisting of statute law on the one hand and case law on the other, whereby judicial precedent is applied in the courts by judges interpreting statute law. A third element consists of constitutional conventions which do not have statutory authority but nevertheless have binding force. Much of the relationship between the Sovereign and Parliament is conventional rather than statutory.
The lowest criminal courts are the Magistrates Courts, which deal with minor offences. More serious cases, and ones appealed from the Magistrates Courts, are heard in the Crown Court (Queen’s Bench Division). Cases are appealed to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division).
Civil cases at first instance are heard in the County Courts (for minor claims) or the High Court, which is divided into three divisions: Queen’s Bench, Family and Chancery. Cases may be appealed to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division). Cases may be appealed from the County Court to the High Court.
The House of Lords is the supreme court of appeal. Its judicial functions are quite separate from its legislative work, and cases are heard by up to 13 senior judges known as Law Lords. The judicial work of the House of Lords is described on its web pages. The Court Service web pages provide information on the other courts.
In addition to the courts there are specialised Tribunals, which hear appeals on decisions made by various public bodies and Government departments, in areas such as employment, immigration, social security, tax and land. The Court Service also contains information on these.
There has been extensive reform of civil procedure in recent years. Following on the publication of a major report on Access to Justice by Lord Woolf in 1996, a completely new set of civil procedure rules were put into operation in 1999, as well as new legislation for modernising the courts and legal services. A Criminal Courts Review is due to report on reform of the criminal justice system at the end of 2000. The various reports, the new Civil Procedure Rules and much else can be found on the Lord Chancellor’s Department website.
Web-based sources for primary law have been made available officially since 1996. However, while they offer valuable texts they are limited by the fact that they are not annotated, amended or hyperlinked. Consequently it is necessary to use commercial subscription services in order to get reliable up to date information. Early in 2000 a new initiative to put up hyperlinked texts of UK legislation and case law was launched. Known as BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute), it is based on the Australian model AustLII. It uses its own system of citation for cases and there are links other cases and legislation where they are loaded on the database. The site is under development, and coverage is patchy at present. For regularly-updated details of all resources see LAWLINKS.
The major encyclopaedia is Halsbury’s Laws of England. 4th ed. Butterworths, 1973. It is the starting point for any research on English law. It is also available in a web version known as Halsbury’s Laws Direct.
Legislation since devolution forms several separate entities:
United Kingdom legislation: applying to the whole UK
Welsh legislation (Statutory Instruments only)
Northern Irish legislation
There are two main forms of primary legislation: Public General Acts and Local and Personal Acts. The latter are of specific and limited application only. For the purposes of this survey I will concentrate on PGAs. Depending on the legislative programme of the government, some 40-70 Acts are passed each year. The sequential numbering of each Act within each year is known as a chapter number.
Public General Acts appear in individual paper-covered volumes, cumulating into three or four annual volumes. From 1996 they have been published on the Web, and some recent Acts have useful explanatory notes. They are also on BAILII, and the texts here contain hyperlinks to other legislation on the BAILII database.
Unamended legislation is of limited value, however, and it is always necessary to consult up to date sources. The principal printed source for statutes is Halsbury’s Statutes. This is arranged by subject in 50 volumes and contains the amended text of all Acts in force with extensive annotations. It is updated by means of an annual Cumulative Supplement and a loose leaf Noter-up, both arranged like miniature versions of the work itself. There is no electronic version of Halsbury’s Statutes.
Current Law Statutes are a chronologically-arranged printed source. The texts of Acts are therefore unamended, but are annotated. This source is of particular value for finding the background to legislation, and tracing the documents (reports, white papers, etc.) and debates which preceded the Act. This is now available on Westlaw (see below under <Electronic Sources>).
Statutory Instruments, or SIs, are regulations made under the authority of an Act of Parliament. There are up to 3500 of these published annually, and they are numbered sequentially within each year. They are important documents, which often provide the detail required for the application of the Statute, and some contain provisions for the commencement of an Act (when it comes into force), SIs have been published on the Web since 1997 and are also available in the electronic services listed below.
As well as the public domain sources for legislation on the Web listed above there are several subscription services.
Butterworths Legislation Direct contains all UK legislation in force. including Statutes and SIs, and Scottish Statutes and SIs. Updated by Stop Press facility, Includes Is It In Force? and Progress of Legislation databases.
Justis UK Statutes contains the full text of Statutes as enacted with cross referencing between amended and amending legislation. Justis UK Statutory Instruments contain SIs from 1987.
Lexis also contains the texts of Statutes and SIs in force.
Cases in the courts are reported in numerous series of law reports. Until 1865 case reporting was done by private court reporters, and the resultant publications are known as the nominate reports, because they are usually known by the name of the reporter. These have been gathered together in a collection called the English Reports which makes them relatively easy to find. The English Reports have also been published on CD-ROM, but this is not widely held. In 1865 the reporting of cases was systematised by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting, which started publishing series of reports organised according to the court, collectively known as The Law Reports.
The main general series currently published are:
The Law Reports, 1865- which is in four separate series at the present day. For a list of the citations to all the series within The Law Reports see www.ukc.ac.uk/library/info/subjectg/lawrep_citations.htm
Weekly Law Reports, 1954-
All England Law Reports, 1936-
In addition there is a large number of specialised reports, covering different areas of law. There is a recognised hierarchy of reports, the most authoritative being The Law Reports, but of course many cases are only reported in specialised series.
Lists of citations can be found in many of the published works, but the most comprehensive guide is Raistrick, Donald: Index to legal citations and abbreviations, 2nd ed, Bowker Saur 1993, which has world wide coverage.
A distinction here has to be made between law reports and transcripts. In recent years there has been a growth in the provision of electronic transcripts of cases on the web, many available free Many, though not all, of these will subsequently be reported.
BAILII contains an easily searchable and growing number of case law databases.
House of Lords judgments are available on the web from 1996, and with 2 hours of the decision.
The Court Service contains a database of selected recent cases from the Court of Appeal and the High Court.
The Times contains law reports which are available online from 1996, but you need to know the date.
Other sources can be checked on LAWLINKS.
Justis Electronic Law Reports, 1865- . The electronic version of The Law Reports, on CD-ROM and online. Justis also produce electronic versions of several other major series of reports.
Butterworths All England Direct contains the All England Law Reports 1936- and the All England Reporter – a digest of recent cases with transcripts, not all of which will eventually be reported in All ER.
There are numerous other services offering access to more specialised series of reports.
The two major printed indexes to UK law are the Digest, published by Butterworths, and Current Law. Both contain digests of cases with references to cited cases and legislation, and both contain invaluable indexes to cases which will tell you where they have been reported.
Current Law is available electronically as Current Legal Information, on CD-ROM and online. This is in fact a family of databases. The Current Law Case Citator enables you to check the judicial history of a case and to see where it has been reported, and to trace case commentaries in journals, and links to the digest of the case in Current Law Cases. The Current Law Legislation Citator enables you to find cases interpreting a piece of legislation, and commentary in articles. The Current Law Citators are also available on Westlaw, as the Case and Legislation Locators.
The Legal Journals Index is the major British source for tracing articles in legal journals, and covers UK and European English-language publications. It started publication in 1986 and is no longer available in hard copy. It is part of the Current Legal Information service, on CD-ROM and online. It is also available on Westlaw.
Index to Legal Periodicals has good coverage of the more academic-orientated UK legal journals.Parliamentary Information
The Parliament website gives access to information on the business of the two Houses of Parliament, including a good deal of general material on the parliamentary system. You can also find details of the composition of Parliament and of the Government of the day and links to government publications on the web, including white papers and green papers, reports of committees, house business and the Weekly Information Bulletin.
The debates of Parliament are published in Hansard. There are separate series for the House of Commons and the House of Lords and for Standing Committee debates. Hansard is also available on the web on the Parliament website, and there are archives of the Commons Hansard back to 1988/89 The House of Lords Hansard database is from 1996.
Bills are published on the web with amendments where available, and explanatory notes for major Bills introduced into Parliament by a government minister. The progress of legislation can be checked in the House of Commons Weekly Information Bulletin on the Parliament website.
Since the government set up its website this has become the definitive source for official information. The site includes an A-Z index to all government departments, agencies and other public or quasi-governmental bodies, and is a comprehensive source for such information. There is also an index by topic, and a list of pathfinders – portals to the government sites which reflect the major initiatives of the current administration.
Until 1996 all government publishing was in the hands of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office when it was privatised. The trading business was sold off to a company now known as The Stationery Office. HMSO remains as a body handling the statutory functions of official publishing, with responsibility for publishing legislation and administering crown and parliamentary copyright.
The Stationery Office site is now known as UK State and provides access to a good deal of official information as well as being an online bookstore for official publications.
The major online subscription services for official publications is UKOP, which has authoritative bibliographic information. BOPCAS (British Official Publications Current Awareness Service) is a subscription service with a certain amount of free information on recent publications. The public domain site for Official Documents is at http://www.official-documents.co.uk/.
The Law Commission is an independent body set up in 1965 to keep the law of England and Wales under review and recommend reform where needed. Its projects are described in a bulletin called ‘Law Under Review’ which ceased paper publication in 1997 and is now published on the website. The valuable Law Commission Reports and Consultation Papers are available on the website under Library.
The Scottish Law Commission is the equivalent body for Scotland. It does not have itw own website, but information on its reports can be found on the Scottish Executive site.
The Scottish legal system is in part separate from that of England and Wales. It has its own court system and legal profession. Scotland lost its independent legislative powers under the Treaty of Union 1707, when Scotland became part of Great Britain. In 1997 the new Labour Government carried through proposals for devolution, and the Scottish Parliament was set up following a referendum in the Scotland Act 1998. Elections were held in 1999. The Scottish Parliament can legislate in areas of domestic policy, but excluding foreign affairs, defence and national security, economic and monetary policy, employment and social security. The Scottish Executive is the official government website.
The court system is separate and different from England and Wales, and uses different terminology. The principal law officer is the Lord Advocate. The Court of Session is the supreme civil court, subject to appeal to the House of Lords, with most civil jurisdiction being dealt with in the sheriff courts. The supreme criminal court is the High Court of Justiciary, the lower courts are the sheriff courts and district courts. The Scottish Courts website is at www.scotcourts.gov.uk/.
The Laws of Scotland: Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia, Butterworths 1987- is the definitive Scottish legal encyclopaedia.
Until the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, Acts of Parliament with specific application to Scotland were made in the Westminster Parliament. The first Act of the Scottish Parliament was passed in 1999, and they are on the Scottish Legislation website. This site also includes links to Scottish Statutory Instruments and other material.
Session Cases 1822- is the main series, reporting not only cases heard in the Court of Session, but also in the House of Lords and the High Court of Justiciary.
Scots Law Times 1893- is a weekly publication containing law reports. There are also other series, and some significant Scottish judgments may be reported in the Weekly Law Reports and the All England Law Reports.
BAILII publishes all the Scottish cases in the public domain with links to legislation and cases cited.
The Scottish Courts Web Site contains the same cases, though without links.
Wales has been united with England administratively, politically and legally since the 16th century. Under arrangements for devolution a new Welsh Assembly was established in 1999 following a referendum (The Government of Wales Act 1998), giving powers legislate in domestic areas but excluding foreign affairs and defence, taxation, overall economic policy, social security and broadcasting. However, the National Assembly for Wales is restricted to passing subordinate legislation only.
There is no separate Welsh case law.
Northern Ireland was created in 1922. After centuries of conflict with Britain, in which the 'Irish question' was a major political issue, demands for home rule for Ireland were met by establishing two separate parliaments subordinate to Westminster (the Government of Ireland Act 1920: text on BAILII). This proved unacceptable to the South and after negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (on the National Archives of Ireland website), the 26 counties of Southern Ireland left to form the Irish Free State, now known as the Republic of Ireland. The six predominantly Protestant six counties of the province of Ulster retained their own parliament under Westminster jurisdiction.
The present civil unrest between the Unionists (protestant) and the nationalists (catholic) began in the 1960s, and the British government assumed direct responsibility for law and order in 1972. The Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished, and replaced by a unicameral Northern Ireland Assembly, with a Secretary of State appointed by the British Government and serving as a member of the British Cabinet. The constitutional authority of this lies in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. This only lasted until 1974, when the British government took over direct rule of Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Act 1974). In 1998, following extensive negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement was reached and endorsed by referendum. A new Northern Ireland Assembly was created and legislation to implement the settlement (The Northern Ireland Act 1998: text on BAILII) was passed. However, the Assembly was suspended following the failure of the republican movements to decommission their arms Northern Ireland Act 2000: text on BAILII) At the time of writing it has not been resumed.
A valuable website for information and documents on the Northern Ireland conflict is CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet).
Legislation applying to the whole of the UK can be assumed to apply in its entirety to Northern Ireland unless this is made explicit within the Act. Some Acts apply primarily or exclusively to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Orders in Council are Statutory Instruments applying exclusively to Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Act 1974, and which equate to primary legislation. These are collected together in annual volumes Northern Ireland Statutes, 1921-. Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland are Statutory Instruments relating exclusively to Northern Ireland and are on the web from 1998. Statutes Revised Northern Ireland, 2nd. ed. (HMSO,1982) includes Acts passed before Northern Ireland came into existence. These are also on BAILII.
As well as BAILII the official Northern Ireland Legislation website provides access to full text Northern Irish legislation.
The legal profession in England and Wales has two branches, solicitors and barristers. There are some 67,000 solicitors in England and Wales, and only 8,500 practising barristers. Barristers represent clients in the courts on the instruction of solicitors, although their exclusive rights of audience in the higher courts have been eroded in recent years. Barristers are organised into sets of Chambers, but are essentially self-employed. Their professional organisation is called the Bar. Solicitors are organised into firms of varying size from sole practitioner to large international practices and provide all legal services, and instruct barristers. Their governing body is the Law Society.
The Bar Council’s website is at www.barcouncil.org.uk.
A valuable portal for the legal profession is www.venables.co.uk.
Law degrees in the UK are at undergraduate level. Professional training is provided at postgraduate level by means of the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) for would-be barristers, and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) for solicitors. Students with a first degree in a subject other than Law must follow a one-year qualifying course (known as the CPE, or Common Professional Examination) in the core subjects of law before being eligible for the qualifying courses. In order to enter the profession student solicitors must find a post as a trainee solicitor, and barristers must obtain a pupillage in a set of barristers’ chambers. Entry to both branches of the profession is extremely competitive.
The major legal publishers are Butterworths and Sweet & Maxwell, who between them publish most of the principal reference works of law. The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting publish The Law Reports (see above). However there are a large number of important publishers with large legal publishing programmes. A list of these can be found on LAWLINKS.
There many websites which provide free current awareness services. Many of the major publishers do so, including Butterworths, which offers News Direct, and Sweet & Maxwell which has various alerting services on its website. There is also a growing number of new websites providing current awareness services, of which the Interactive Lawyer, Law.com/UK and LawZONE are some of the best examples. See www.venables.co.uk for lists of these and of law firms with current awareness and news on their websites, or offering free email newsletters.
This is inevitably a rather ad hoc list. I have omitted loose leaf publications, though in recent years many standard texts have changed to this form of publication.
- Bradley, A.W.. & Ewing, K. Constitutional and administrative law. 12th ed. Longman, 1998
- De Smith, S. & Brazier, R. Constitutional and administrative law. 7th ed. Penguin Books, 1998
- Cranston, R. Principles of banking law. Clarendon Press, 1997
- Hapgood, M. Paget’s law of banking. 11th ed. Butterworths 1996
- Borrie, J. & Brown, I. Commercial law. 7th ed. Butterworths, 2000
- Goode, R. Commercial law. 2nd ed. Butterworths, 1995
- Farrar, J.H. Farrar’s company law. 4th ed. Butterworths, 1998
- Morse, G. Charlesworth & Morse: Company law. 16th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1999
- Livingston, D. Competition law and practice. Sweet & Maxwell, 1995
- Whish, R. Competition law. 3rd. ed. Butterworths, 1993
- Guest, T. Benjamin’s Sale of goods. 5th ed. 1997
- Harvey, B.W. & Parry, D. Law of consumer protection and fair trading. 5th. ed. Butterworths, 1996
- Beale, H. (ed.) Chitty on contracts. 2 vols. 28th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1999
- Furmston, M.P. Cheshire, Fifoot and Furmston’s law of contract. 13th ed. Butterworths, 1996
- Goff, R. Law of restitution. 5th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1998
- Ashworth, A. Principles of criminal law. 3rd ed. Clarendon Press, 1999
- Smith, J.C. & Hogan, B. Criminal law. 9th ed., Butterworths, 1999
- Pitt, G. Employment law. 4th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 2000
- Selwyn, N. Selwyn’s law of employment. 10th ed. Butterworths, 1998
- Smith, I. & Thomas, G. Industrial law. 7th ed. Butterworths, 2000-07-03
English Legal System
- Ward, R. Walker and Walker’s English legal system. 8th ed. Butterworths, 1998
- Hawke, N. Environmental health law. Sweet & Maxwell, 1995
- Hughes, D. Environmental law. 3rd ed. Butterworths, 1996
Equity and Trusts
- Burn, E.H. Maudsley and Burn’s Trusts and trustees. 5th ed. Butterworths, 1996
- Martin, J. Hanbury and Martin: Modern equity. 15th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1997
- Murphy, P. Murphy on evidence. 6th ed. Blackstone, 1997
- Tapper, C. Cross and Tapper on evidence. 9th ed. Butterworths 1999
- Cretney, S. Family law. 4th ed.. Sweet & Maxwell, 2000
- Lowe, N. Bromley’s Family law. 9th ed. Butterworths, 1998
- Booth, M. Rayden on divorce and family matters. 2 vols. 16th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1991
- Clayton, R. et al The law of human rights. Oxford University Press, 2000
- Lester, A. and Pannick, D. Human rights – law and practice. Butterworths, 1999
- Jackson, D. Immigration - law and practice. Sweet & Maxwell, 1999
- Macdonald, I.A. Macdonald’s Immigration law and practice. 4th ed. Butterworths, 1995
Information Technology Law
- Lloyd, I. Information technology law. 2nd. ed. Butterworths, 1997
- Macdonald, E. Informatin technology law. 2nd ed. Cavendish, 2000
- Fletcher, I. Law of insolvency. 2nd ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 2000
- Pennington, R. Pennington’s Insolvency law. 2nd ed. Butterworths, 1997
- Ivamy, E.R.H. General principles of insurance law. 6th ed. Butterworths, 1993
- Legh-Jones, N. et al Macgillivray on insurance law. 9th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1997
- Cornish, W.R. Intellectual property. 4th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1999
- Garnett, K. et al Copinger and Skone James on copyright. 14th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1998
- Greenberg, D. & Millbanks, A.. Stroud’s judicial dictionary of words and phrases. 6th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 2000
- Words and prases legally defined. 3rd. ed. Butterworths, 1998-
- Clinch, P. Using a law library. Blackstone, 1992
- Holborn, G. Butterworths legal research guide. Butterworths, 1993
- Jones, M. Medical negligence. 2nd ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1995
- Kennedy, I. & Grubb, A. Medical law. 7th ed. Butterworths, 1994
- Duxbury, R.M.C. Telling and Duxbury: Planning alw and procedure. 11th ed. Butterworths 1999
- Heap, D. An outline of planning law. 11th ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1996
- Burn, E.H. Cheshire and Burn: Modern law of real property. 16th ed. Butterworths, 2000
- Furber, J. Hill & Redman’s Guide to landlord and tenant law. Butterworths, 1999
- Gray, K. Elements of land law. 3rd ed. Butterworths, 1999
- Marshall, E.A. General principles of Scots law. W. Green, 1999
- White, R.M. & Willock, I.D. The Scottish legal system. 2nd.ed. Butterworths, 1999
- Morse, G. Davies: Principles of tax law. 3rd ed. Sweet & Maxwell, 1996
- Whitehouse, C. Revenue law – principles and practice. 17th ed. Butterworths, 1999
- Brazier, M. Street on torts. 10th ed. Butterworths, 2000
- Cane, P. Atiyah’s Accidents, compensation and the law. 6th ed. Butterworths, 1999