A Diagram of the Court System In England & Wales

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The diagram of the Court system.

Introductory Note

For many law students, one of their first law lectures involves the drawing up a diagram of the courts in England and Wales. The reason for this is simple: an understanding of the hierarchy of English courts is essential in order to understand the concept of precedent. This is the fundamental building-block of the Common Law which provides that if a higher court has determined an issue (such as how a law is to be interpreted) then that decision is binding on lower courts who must interpret it in the same way. The Latin maxim “stare decisis et non quieta movere”, to “stand by decided matters and not disturb the undisturbed”, is sometimes given as a motto for this.

However, it soon becomes apparent to many students that such diagrams are greatly simplified. Many such diagrams miss out some of the more specialist courts which are regularly in use, such as the Court of Protection or the Coroners’ Courts. There also exist parallel jurisdictions for the military, through the Courts Martial, and for the Church of England, through the Ecclesiastical Courts. Finally, the full court system includes a few ancient courts with rarely-exercised but extant powers.

Aims of the Diagram

The aim of the diagram is to give as complete-as-possible visual depiction of the courts which exist in England and Wales, today, and their hierarchy.

However, it does not aim to provide legal advice on where to appeal in any specific case. The laws and procedure rules relating to appeals are complex and so anyone contemplating an appeal should therefore seek specific advice from an appropriate professional.

Date

The diagram is believed to be correct as of the 22nd April 2014 when substantive changes to the Family and County Courts were made by the coming–into–force of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 in April 2014. For a historic view of the court system between 2009 and 2014, please see the archived version.

Explanation of * and † and key

On the diagram, an * indicates the court is subject to supervision by the High Court. This means that a decision can be appealed from the lower court to the High Court by way of Judicial Review. The † indicates that there are several independent courts at this level (e.g. there are several hundred independent Magistrates’ Courts but only one Crown and High Court).

Usual routes of appeal are shown with the arrows. This does not include an appeal by way of judicial review or case stated to the High Court which is shown by an *. It also does not show “leapfrog” appeals (e.g. from the High Court to the Supreme Court) nor the slightly more complex rules that apply to appeals to the European Courts.

Courts are shown in boxes. Those with rounded edges very rarely sit to exercise anything but ceremonial jurisdiction. Divisions within courts are indicated by hashed lines. Named courts which are otherwise the same as other courts of the same jurisdiction are indicated with dotted lines (e.g. the Old Bailey is no different from other Crown Courts and is so indicated with dots).

Classification of Courts

There are various ways in which courts are classified. None are entirely satisfactory mostly because of the historic way in which the courts developed.

Criminal and Civil Courts

Criminal Courts are relatively distinct from Civil Courts. The former exist to hear prosecutions, where the defendant is charged (usually by the Crown) with some type of behaviour which is deserving of criminal sanction and punishment. Civil Courts, on the other hand, determine disputes between parties where one party seeks from the other damages or injunctions to remedy the loss he has suffered.

In general, the Crown Court, Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), Magistrates’ Courts, and Courts Martial are regarded as “Criminal” with the other Courts being regarded as “Civil”. However, the distinction is not perfect: the Magistrates’ Courts have a number of civil functions (particularly in relation to family law); and the High Court and Supreme Court hear criminal appeals. Finally, a number of “quasi-criminal” proceedings exist (e.g. cash forfeiture and confiscation of the proceeds of crime) which, whilst being civil in nature, are heard by the criminal courts.

Appeal Courts and Courts of First Instance

The English system does not divide neatly into Appellate or Appeal Courts and Courts of First Instance. The reason for this is that most courts have the power both to hear appeals from other courts and also to try cases for the first time. For example, the High Court tries larger civil cases as a court of first instance, as well as hearing appeals from the County Court and other inferior courts.

Indeed, whilst the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and Privy Council almost exclusively hear appeals and so could be described as Appeal Courts, there are still exceptions: the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) acts as a first instance court to hear referrals from the Criminal Cases Review Commission where the CCRC believes a miscarriage of justice may have taken place.

Superior, Courts of Record and Inferior Courts

A technical distinction is sometimes made between Superior and Inferior Courts. An inferior court is subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Court so that if a party feels a decision is irrational or unlawful, one can Judicially Review that appeal in the High Court. Decisions of Superior Courts cannot be challenged in this way. Inferior Courts are marked on the diagram with an *.

Courts of Record are generally said to be courts capable of punishing contempt by way of their inherent jurisdiction, whilst courts which are not Courts of Record can only punish contempt if given the power to do so by statute. Most Superior Courts are Courts of Record, whilst many Inferior Courts have statutory powers to punish contempt.

National and International Courts

A number of Courts in the English and Welsh system hear cases from other jurisdictions. The most notable ones are the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights which have the power to determine cases referred or appealed from the member states of the European Union and Council of Europe, respectively.

The Supreme Court is the only court on the diagram which has jurisdiction over matters from the whole of the UK and not just one of its constituent jurisdictions (i.e. England and Wales; Scotland; and Northern Ireland). It hears civil appeals from the Scottish Court of Session and civil and criminal appeals from the Northern Irish High Court. It also determines “devolution issues” raised in any UK jurisdiction which, in practice, relates both to disputes between the Westminster and devolved governments and to cases from Scotland and Northern Ireland that raise questions of Human Rights.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has an extensive (though declining) international jurisdiction, hearing appeals from a variety of Crown Dependencies and Commonwealth Countries.

The United Kingdom is also party to a number of treaties which give jurisdiction to a number of purely International courts, such as the International Court of Justice (which determines certain disputes between members of the UN); and the International Criminal Court. They are not shown on the diagram.

Locations of Courts

The jurisdiction of most English courts can be exercised by a judge of the appropriate seniority with very little formality. Therefore, whilst most courts have regular court-houses where cases are usually heard, cases can be heard at any convenient location. Whilst English courts do not normally have a “seat” in the manner of some International or Foreign Courts, most have a regular court-house or houses where almost all hearings take place.

A relic of the days when some (mostly inferior) courts were only capable of exercising jurisdiction over a local area is that some inferior courts are said to exist independently at each venue where they sit. Superior courts, on the other hand, are said to be part of the same court irrespective of where the hearing is taking place. For example, Norwich Magistrates’ Court is an independent court, whilst Norwich Crown Court is properly “the Crown Court sitting at Norwich”, there being only one Crown Court in the country. Courts which are independent at each venue where they sit are marked with a †.

Court-Houses

Some court-houses have become well known and are often referred to in the press. For example the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand is the venue for most High Court and Court of Appeal cases in London and is also used for other courts and tribunals (e.g. major coroners’ inquests) when a large court is required. A hearing there can therefore be before a number of different courts. Similarly, the Old Bailey or Central Criminal Court is simply the location where the Crown Court sits in the City of London. Named courts are shown on the diagram with a dotted line.

Specialist Courts within Courts

Many courts hold specific sessions to exercise a specific jurisdiction and are then informally given a different name. For example, a County Court is often called the “Small Claims Court” when it is hearing a case on the small claims track. The more common versions of these are shown on the diagram.

Details of Specific Courts

Court of Justice of the European Union

This term is sometimes used as a “catch-all” expression for the various European Union Courts.

European Court of Justice

The ECJ is the highest of the European Union’s Courts. Its main function is to determine questions about European Law sent to it by national courts so that uncertainties in European Law can be resolved in a consistent way throughout the EU.

General Court

Called the Court of First Instance until 2009, the General Court is the European Union’s first instance court, usually hearing cases brought by individuals or companies against the EU or one of its member states for failure to properly apply European Union Law. It also hears disputes relating to European Trademarks and appeals from the European Union’s Civil Service Tribunal.

European Court of Human Rights

The ECHR is an appeal court which deals exclusively in Human Rights issues. Appeals to it can be made from any court in the UK, once all domestic routes of appeal are exhausted.

Grand Chamber

Decisions of a Chamber within the ECHR can be appealed to the Grand Chamber, where 17 judges sit to determine the appeal.

Chambers†

Most cases brought to the ECHR are first heard by a Chamber comprising seven judges.

The Supreme Court

Established in 2009, the Supreme Court inherited the powers formally exercised by the House of Lords. It therefore acts as the final appeal court for the majority of English cases (generally from the Court of Appeal, although in certain circumstances from the High Court), in addition to appeals from Northern Ireland and civil appeals from Scotland. It also determines disputes relating to the devolution of powers from Westminster to regional parliaments and assemblies.

Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (The Queen in Council)

The Judicial Committee has an eclectic jurisdiction. Much of its work involves sitting as a final appeal court for various Commonwealth countries that do not have their own supreme court. Domestically, it acts as a final appeal court for certain ecclesiastical and admiralty matters and hears appeals from a number of professional bodies (such as the General Medical Council). Cases are usually decided by a panel of Supreme Court Judges, although there is flexibility to add specialist judges to the panel (e.g. in a Commonwealth appeal, a judge from the jurisdiction in question).

Senior Courts

The Senior Courts were created in 1873 when the ancient common law courts (the Queen’s (or King’s) Bench; Exchequer; and Common Pleas) were merged with the High Court of Chancery (which applied equity rather than the common law) and various smaller courts (Admiralty; Probate; Divorce and Matrimonial Causes; and Bankruptcy). It was originally titled the “Supreme Court of Judicature”. This title was often regarded as a misnomer since appeal was still available to the House of Lords, although the courts were “Supreme” in the sense that they had powers of both Law and Equity. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 renamed the Court the Senior Courts.

The Court of Appeal

Established as the higher court of the Supreme Court in 1873, the Court of Appeal has since operated as the lower of England’s two specialist appeals courts, generally hearing appeals on questions of law from the High Court and Crown Court.

Criminal Division

Formally a separate Court of Criminal Appeal which was turned into a specialist division of the Court of Appeal in 1966, the Criminal Division hears appeals from the Crown Court, generally against sentence or conviction. For the former, the court may be composed of only two judges.

Civil Division

Hears appeals from decisions in the High Court and final judgments in the County Court.

The Crown Court

The Crown Court was established in 1971 to replace the ancient system of Assize and Quarter Session Courts for trying serious criminal cases. It also hears certain types of criminal appeals from the Magistrates’ Courts. It is the only English court to use a jury on a regular basis.

Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey)

The Crown Court in the City of London is called the “Central Criminal Court” or colloquially the “Old Bailey” (after its location); it hears the most serious criminal cases as well as conducting various ceremonies due to its association with the City of London.

The High Court

The High Court was established in 1873 as a division of the Supreme Court, bringing together various old Common Law Courts. It now tries the more complex or serious civil cases (usually involving over £25,000) as well as many specialist civil actions at first instance, and hears appeals from a variety of civil and criminal courts.

Divisional Courts

A divisional court is a court in the High Court where two judges sit to hear the case together. Divisional Courts usually hear appeals from inferior courts when the High Court is exercising its inherent power to supervise them. Therefore, whilst Divisional Courts can sit in every Division of the High Court, they are most regularly encountered in the Queen’s Bench Division, hearing appeals from the Magistrates’ Courts.

Chancery Division

A successor to the old equitable High Court of Chancery, the Chancery Division now hears cases involving land, companies, trusts, insolvency, wills and probate and intellectual property.

Patents Court

A specialist court which hears matters relating to intellectual property.

Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court

The successor to the Patents County Court: the IPEC deals with smaller patents and intellectual property cases.

Companies Court

A specialist court in the High Court which primarily deals with the winding up of companies and applications to disqualify individuals from being appointed company directors.

Bankruptcy Court

Hears matters relating to personal insolvency (including large numbers of uncontested petitions for bankruptcy).

Queen’s Bench Division

The Queen’s Bench Division is the successor to the ancient Common Law Courts of the Queen’s (or King’s) Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas. Its work involves a wide variety of subjects, although the majority of cases which are not heard by a specialist court within it will involve some form of negligence or breach of contract. Cases involving the torts of defamation and wrongful imprisonment are the only civil proceedings where juries are regularly used in English law.

Administrative Court

Usually sits as a Divisional Court of two Judges to hear applications for Judicial Review (i.e. legal challenges to decisions made by public bodies).

Technology and Construction Court

A specialist court which hears disputes relating to construction, engineering and related matters.

Commercial Court

A specialist court in the High Court which deals commercial disputes (often of extremely high value) between companies.

Mercantile Courts

Specialist courts which hear business disputes, usually when the cases are somewhat more complex than those dealt with, ordinary, by the County Court, but not so complex or valuable so as to justify the case being heard in the High Court’s Commercial Court.

London Mercantile Court

The Mercantile Court which sits in Central London.

Admiralty Court

Historically the Admiralty Court had extensive civil and criminal jurisdictions over disputes relating to the open sea. Due to the International nature of its cases it was also one of the few English Courts to apply the continental Civil Law rather than the English Common Law. Today, as a specialist Court within the Queen’s Bench Division, most of its business relates to disputes over the shipping of goods.

Prize Courts

A prize court determines the fate of a ship seized during a war.

Family Division

The family division hears international child abduction cases and other family cases which cannot be heard in the Family Court since the parties seek to invoke the inherent powers of the High Court.

County Court*

The County Court hears lower value civil cases (generally up to £25,000 in value). Formerly, there were 173 independent County Courts throughout the county; in April 2014 they were merged into a single County Court in order to allow proceedings to be issued (started) in a number of centralised “business centres”. There are currently two: the County Court Money Claims Centre in Salford (which deals with debt claims) and the County Court Business Centre in Northampton (which deals with other work).

Mayor’s and City of London’s Court*

Two ancient local courts which have been merged as the County Court for the City of London.

Divorce County Court*†

A County Court which can hear divorce petitions.

Small Claims Court*†

A colloquial name applied to County Court when it deals with matters on the small claims track; cases where the damages sought are less than £5,000.

Magistrates’ Courts*†

Magistrates’ or Justices of Peaces’ Courts are ancient local courts which deal with the majority of less serious crime and a small array of civil proceedings.

Youth Courts*†

Youth Courts are the name given to Magistrates’ Courts when they sit to try juveniles. As it is considered advantageous to deal with juvenile defendants in a specialist court, the Youth Courts may try more serious crimes than the adult Magistrates’ Courts will deal with.

Family Court

The Family Court, established in 2014, hears three main types of cases: divorce and how the martial property should be divided; disputes as to which parent a child should live with; and applications by local authorities to take children into care.

Court of Protection

The Court of Protection determines matters relating to the welfare and property of adults who lack mental capacity (e.g. through mental illness).

Coroners’ Courts*†

Ancient courts which meet to investigate unexplained or unusual deaths. Coroners’ jurisdictions are highly localised: the Coroner is only able to investigate the death of a person whose body is lying in his or her district. There therefore tends to be at least one for each county and city with more populous regions being divided up into smaller districts. Unusually for England, proceedings are inquisitorial rather than adversarial in nature. Coroners also have a residual function to investigate buried treasure. A new appeals system was created by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 but may not be enacted due to budgetary restraint.

Election Courts†

Ad hoc courts established to determine complaints about the conduct of elections.

High Court of Parliament

An unusual feature of the British constitution is that the legislature, Parliament, has judicial powers. Indeed, the House of Lords, the upper house, operated as the final appeal court until 2009. Since the establishment of the Supreme Court, only a few residual judicial powers remain (such as the power to try cases of impeachment and peerage disputes), along with the quasi-judicial right to pass bills of attainder—a legislative declaration that a person is guilty of a crime—although this power has not been exercised since 1746.

House of Lords

Formerly the highest domestic appeals court but since the establishment of the Supreme Court in October 2009, the House of Lords’ judicial functions have been limited to proceedings for impeachment—where a person is tried for grave crimes by the House of Lords, on an indictment issued by the House of Commons (last used in 1806)—and for peerage claims.

Court of Claims

An ad-hoc Court, established before the coronation of a monarch for the purposes of hearing petitions claiming the right to perform various functions at the coronation service.

High Court of Chivalry (Earl Marshal’s Court)*

The Earl Marshal’s Court is an ancient court which originally dealt with matters relating to the conduct of war. Its jurisdiction was slowly reduced to matters relating to coats of arms (and other heraldic achievements). Long thought to be dormant, it was revived and found still to have jurisdiction 1955. Unusually for an English court it applied the Civil Law.

Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports

An ancient local court which has jurisdiction in Admiralty matters over the Cinque Ports (five historic Ports in Kent). Now primarily meets for ceremonial purposes.

Chamberlain of London’s Court

An ancient court in the City of London which has jurisdiction in cases involving Freemen of the City of London. Now primarily meets for ceremonial reasons, such as the installation of new Freemen. Halsbury’s Laws comments that “it appears that an appeal lay to the judge of the Mayor’s and City of London Court, possibly sitting with a jury”.

Court of Swainmote

Ancient local court of the verderers (effectively governors) of the New Forest which has a power to try minor crimes.

Barmote Courts†

Ancient local courts established in Derbyshire to try matters relating to lead mining. Now primarily meet for ceremonial purposes.

Great Barmote Court

The Great Barmote Court is the name given to a sitting of the Barmote Court on the first Tuesday of April and October. It sits in Monyash in Derbyshire.

Small Barmote Court†

The Small Barmote Court is the name of a sitting of the Barmote court at any time when the Great Barmote Court is not sitting.

Courts Martial

The Courts Martial are the criminal courts which try service men and women and those subject to English Service Law.

Court Martial Appeal Court

The Court Martial Appeal Court is the military equivalent of the civilian Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.

Court Martial

The Court Martial hears more serious criminal cases involving military personnel and is broadly equivalent to the civilian Crown Court. Cases are usually decided by a Board; an unusual form of jury composed of 3 to 7 officers.

Service Civilian Court

The Service Civilian Court tries less serious criminal cases involving civilians subject to military discipline (e.g. civilian workers on overseas British bases).

Summary Appeal Court*

The Summary Appeal Court hears appeals from summary hearings made by a commanding officer (the military equivalent to a summary trial in the Magistrates’ Court).

Ecclesiastical Courts

The Ecclesiastical Courts have jurisdiction to hear matters of church law. Historically this was an extremely wide-ranging power, but it had dwindled in more recent Centuries, particularly with respects to those who are not members of the church.

Commissions of Review

A Commission of Review is an ad-hoc Court which may be established to hear appeals from the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved. Since the latter court has only sat twice, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Commission does not get much business.

Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved

An ecclesiastical appeal court which has jurisdiction to hear cases relating to matters of ritual and doctrine. It has sat only twice.

Chancery Court of York

The Chancery Court at York predominantly sits as an appeals court for cases from the consistory courts in Northern England. The Arches Court performs a similar function for the South.

Arches Court of Canterbury

The Arches Court predominantly sits as an appeals court for cases from the consistory courts in Southern England. The Chancery Court of York performs a similar function for the North.

Vicar-General’s Courts†

There is one Vicar-General’s Court for each Province which sits to hear matters relating to the discipline of Bishops. Similar cases involving clergy of lower ranks are now dealt with by tribunals.

Consistory Court†

There is one consistory court in each Church of England Diocese to hear cases relating to Ecclesiastical Law. The powers of the Ecclesiastical Courts have been in long-term decline since the days in which they exercised powers over many ordinary citizens, and most of the work now concerns applications for faculties (i.e. permission) to modify the fabric of churches.

Commissary Court

The Commissary Court is the Consistory Court for the Diocese of Canterbury.

Benefices Act Court

An ad hoc Court, established under the Benefices Act 1898 for determines cases relating to benefices (grants of land made by the Church). It has sat only once, in 1917.

Court of the Faculties

The Court of the Faculties is the regulatory body for Notaries Public.