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Introduction to English Legal Research  

This guide presents some basic information and sources to help students get started with English legal research.
Last Updated: Apr 12, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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English Courts

Supreme Court: The Supreme Court is the highest appellate court for almost all cases in England and Wales. Before 2009, this role was held by the House of Lords.

High Court of Justice:  The High Court of Justice is the first level of appellate review for cases arising from the subordinate courts. In some instances, it also acts as a court of first instance. It consists of three divisions: the Queen's (or King's) Bench, the Chancery and the Family divisions. These are not actually separate courts, but their separate procedures and practices are adapted to their distinct purposes. Cases are assigned to division based on subject matter. Each division can exercise the jurisdiction of the Hight Court, but bringing a case in the wrong division may result in a financial penalty.

   Chancery Division: The Chancery Court deals with financial cases: business law, land, intellectual property, trusts, probate and tax appeals.

Crown Court: The Crown Court is a criminal court with both appellate and original jurisdiction. It hears appeals from magistrates' courts. It is the only court in England with jurisdiction to try cases on indictment.

County Court: The county court is a lower level court with jurisdiction over civil matters. A hearing in the County Court is presided over by a judge and in most cases, the judge acts as the trier of fact, as no jury is seated.

Magistrates' Court: The Magistrates' Court hears minor criminal cases. It is presided over by a Magistrate of a Justice of the Peace without the assistance of a jury.


English Legal Citation

Citation formats in the U.K are different than the U.S. convention. Follow the Bluebook Rules for complete information on constructing citations.

Case Reports: In the U.S., cases are published in reporters that are arranged in series with sequentially numbered volumes. This allows for the commonly recognized citation format  volume #, reporter series abbreviation, beginning page number (78 F.3d 604).

For English cases the citations are generally formatted in the following way: year, volume # for that year, reporter abbreviation, beginning page number ([1987] 2 Q.B. 135. 

Statutes: Since there is no codification simliar to the U.S. Code for English Laws, the citation format is necessarily different. While the U.S. Code assigns title and section numbers to distinct portions of a statute (18 U.S.C. §232) in England statutes are permanently identified by their original title and enactment date. For example: Airports Authority Act 1965, c.16 (Eng.).

Interpreting English Statute Citations

Full English statutory citations consist of the statute's name (which may include a year), regnal year, chapter, and section.  The practice of assigning a regnal year citation to Acts of Parliament continued until 1963.  Later statute citations omit the regnal year.

Example:  Statute of Westminster, 1931, 22 & 23 Geo. 5 c. 4 (Eng.)
Example:  Scotland Act 1998, c. 46 (Eng.)

For further information on British statutory citation, see How to Cite Legal Authorities by Derek French, K 89 F74 1996

Interpreting the Regnal Year:

Early English statutes are cited by regnal year; they do not reference the calendar year. Regnal years include the session of Parliament covered by the nth year of a monarch's reign, an abbreviation of the monarch's name, and the numerical designation of the monarch in Arabic numerals.  For example, 2 Edw. 3, ch. 3 refers to the 3rd act passed in the 2nd year of the reign of King Edward III which, according to the regnal year chart, was in the year 1328.

Note: not all monarchs will have an Arabic numeral designation.  Queen Anne, for example, is the only Queen Anne to date. "10 Anne" indicates the 10th year of the reign of Queen Anne.  The numeral designation is also omitted for the first monarch to rule under a particular name - e.g., Elizabeth I would be cited as: 13 Eliz.

For a list that correlates abbreviations with monarchs' names, see Table T.2 in the Bluebook, under United Kingdom -- Statutes (p. 321 in the 18th ed. of the Bluebook).

Calculating Regnal Years:

The regnal year runs from the date of the monarch's accession to the throne and indicates the session of Parliament held during the nth year of the monarch's reign.  You can find the exact dates of monarchs' reigns and a conversion of regnal years to calendar years using this chart of regnal years.

Because Parliamentary sessions can cover more than one regnal year, you may see a statute that has two regnal years in its citation, as shown at the top of this box.  This means that it may be impossible to determine, from the citation alone, in which year a piece of legislation passed.


Case Citation from the Bodleian Law Library


Barrister or Solicitor?

Unlike the United States, where the same JD training allows an attorney to act as a transactional or litigation lawyer, the English legal profession has two distinct categories of lawyer: barristers and solicitors. To simplify in order to analogize to the U.S. system: solicitors act as the transactional attorneys, passing along unsettled cases to the barrister, who acts much as the litigation department of a law firm might. There is a movement to blur the lines between these two professions..

Solictors: Solicitors generally provide the same services as a transactional attorney in the United States. They can assist on a wide range of issues, trying to find soluctions mostly out of court. They conduct background research, looking for an answer in the establihsed precedent or law. To become a solicitor a law graduate must study a Legal Practice Course and then work for two years as a trainee (this used to be called "taking articles." The solicitor profession is regulated by The Law Society.

Barristers: Barristers work generally under the instructions of a solicitor; they are hired by he solicitor on behalf of the client. Barristers provide expert advice or act as litigators. To become a barrister a law graduate must follow the Bar Professional Training Course, then hold a pupilage in a barrister's chambers. The barrister profession is regulated by the Bar Council.


English Court System

In 2009 the United Kingdom established the Supreme Court as its highest court. Prior to that, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords was the highest court for both civi and criminal cases.

The Court of Appeals, both criminal and civil, exercise appellate jurisdiction. The Crown Court and Hight Court of Justice exercise both appellate and original jurisdiction. They exercise their original jurisdiciton in matters considered too serious to be heard in the Magistrate or County Court.


    Differences to Note Between English and American Systems

    There is no written English constitution.

    There is no official codification of English statutes.

    Any statute passed by Parliament is valid and can not be questioned by the courts. A statute's validity or "constitutionality" is not an issue a court can adress. Laws may only be changed by an act of Parliament.

    "Constitutional" change (amending laws, customs & conventions that comprise the unwritten constitution) in England can be brought about simply by an act of Parliament.


    Authority of Government Branches

    Legislative Authority

    Parliament consists of an elected lower chamber, the House of Commons, and an unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords. In the past, the right to sit in the House of Lords was restricted to those who held hereditary titles, known as peerages, and to senior bishops of the Church of England. Today, most members of the House of Lords are life peers, appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister and an independent commission, whose titles are not inherited.

    Draft legislation, known as a bill, may be introduced in either chamber, but revenue bills must originate in the House of Commons. Bills proceed through a multi-step legislative process, including a committee stage and a reporting stage. Both chambers must approve a bill in the same form before it can receive the Royal Assent and become a legally binding Act of Parliament.

    The House of Lords serves primarily as a venue for scrutinizing and refining proposed legislation.  The Lords no longer have the power to block revenue bills, and their ability to reject other types of bills supported by a majority of the House of Commons is limited. For a more detailed description of the legislative process, consult the websites of the UK Parliament and the Cabinet Office.

    Executive Authority

    cabinet-style government, formed by whichever party (or coalition of parties) commands a majority in the House of Commons, wields executive power at the national level in the UK.

    The head of the national government, known as the prime minister, is the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. The prime minister appoints the other members of the cabinet, as well as sub-cabinet officials known as ministers.

    Most government ministers are members of the House of Commons affiliated with the same political party as the prime minister, but members of the House of Lords also may serve as ministers.

    The national government exercises its authority in the name of the sovereign, a hereditary monarch who serves as the head of state, a role that is largely, though not entirely, ceremonial. The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II.

    Judicial Authority

    England and Wales share a unified court system, based on common law principles, which originated in medieval England. Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own judicial systems.

    The court system in Northern Ireland closely resembles that of England and Wales, while the Scottish court system is a hybrid model that combines elements of both common and law and civil law systems.

    This research guide focuses on the unified court system of England and Wales. For information about the Scottish judicial system, consult the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website. For information about the judicial system in Northern Ireland, consult the NIDirect website.

    The Court System of England & Wales

    Source:  Courts & Tribunals website

    In England and Wales, most civil cases are heard in the County Court.  Many specialist tribunals have been created to resolve particular types of civil disputes, such as those involving taxation and employment, as well as immigration and asylum cases. All criminal cases originate in the Magistrates' Court, but more serious offenses are referred to the Crown Court.

    The High Court functions as both a court of first instance for high value civil claims and as an appellate court for civil and criminal cases. It consists of three divisions: the Queen's Bench, the Chancery Division, and the Family Division.

    The Court of Appeal functions solely as an appellate chamber. The Civil Division hears appeals form the High Court and the County Court, and the Criminal Division hears appeals from the Crown Court.


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