May 31, 2022 in Law

The Court System in England and Wales


Assess the hierarchical structure of the court system in England and Wales. To what extent does the common law doctrine of binding precedent engage with this structure?



The objective of this written assignment is for you to provide a comprehensive description of the court structure in England and Wales and the common law doctrine of binding precedent. 



The function of the court hierarchy is to ascertain the decisions related to specific courts. In England and Wales, Her Majesty's Courts of Justice are criminal and civil courts the responsibility of which is to administer justice (Slapper & Kelly 2004). The courts are created under the United Kingdom’s Acts of Parliament. The courts’ system of England and Wales is hierarchical by its nature. It comprises of five levels. The structure from the highest court to the lowest one is as follows: the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the County and Crown Courts as well as the Magistrates’ Courts and the Tribunals’ Service. The courts’ hierarchical nature is mirrored in the judicial precedent system that implies to the lower courts in the system that are bound by higher courts in the systems as far as the decisions concerning law matters are considered (Partington 2003). This paper seeks to evaluate the hierarchical structure of the court system and the degree in England and Wales, to which the common law doctrine of a binding precedent is within the structure.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the judicial structure of England and Wales. It was established by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (Cowie & Bradney 2000). The Supreme Court comprises of various courts including the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice and the Crown Court. The House of Lords was replaced by the Supreme Court in 2009. It has become the highest court since that time. The appeals from the High Court and the Court of Appeal are brought to the Supreme Court. A minimum of five justices and a maximum of nine ones are given the responsibility of hearing to appeals. The court concentrates on the matters and cases that are of the constitutional and public importance. The decisions made by the Supreme Court bind lower courts in the hierarchy structure (Slapper & Kelly 2003). This means that it is the final court of appeal for some civil and criminal cases, as well as the devolution matters (Slapper & Kelly 2011).

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is the second highest court in the hierarchy structure. It comprises of Criminal and Civil Divisions. The function of the Civil Division is to listen to the appeals originating from the County and the High Courts, as well as specific higher tribunals. On the other hand, the Criminal Division is responsible for hearing to appeals originating from the Crown Court being of the severe offence (Gillespie 2007). The Supreme Court is, in contrast, responsible for hearing to the appeals from the Court of Appeal.

High Court

The court acts as a civil and criminal appellate court. In addition to hearing to the first instance civil cases, it also hears to some appeals on the civil and criminal matters derived from subordinate courts (Partington 2012). It comprises of three divisions which encompass the Chancery, the Queen’s Bench and the Family divisions (Chadwick 2011). To some extent, these divisions have separate practices and processes which are acclimatized to their functions. However, they are not detached courts. Every division is assigned to certain types of cases. This depends on the subject matter, in addition to exercising control of the court. The Court of Appeal is responsible for hearing some appeals from the High Court (Chadwick 2011).

County Courts

Less complex civil issues are dealt within County Courts. They include such issues as a breach of contracts which involve the property or goods, a debt repayment, housing issues, family matters and the personal injury (Cownie, Bradney & Burton 2007). A judge is responsible for hearing to cases in County Courts without the presence of a jury. Decisions made by the County Courts are appealed to the High Court but in a proper division.

Crown Courts

At a greater extent, the Crown Court deals with criminal cases, both of the first instance and the appellate level. Although the court deals with civil cases, it does so at a limited level. The Crown Court was founded by the 1971 year Courts Act. It is substituted by the Assizes and Quarter Sessions (Wheeler 2006). Appeals originating from the Magistrates’ Courts are heard by the Crown Courts. In England and Wales, the Crown Court is the sole court with the power of trying cases on denunciation (Gifford & Salter 1997). The court handles some criminal cases including robbery, rape and murder. There a jury and a judge have the responsibility of hearing to the same. Crown Court judgments are appealed in the Court of Appeal of the Criminal Division.

Magistrates’ Courts

England and Wales have approximately 600 Magistrates’ Courts. More than 30,000 of them are dealing with the daily cases (Slapper & Kelly 2004). The cases in the Magistrates’ Courts are heard by either a District Judge or a 3 magistrates’ panel without a jury. Similarly to the Adult Magistrates’ Courts, the Youth Courts are run on similar lines. They are preceded by a team of trained adult magistrates (Cowie & Bradney 2000). The criminal decisions of this court can be in the Crown Court, whereas the civil decisions are appealed in the County Courts. Some Magistrates Courts are Family Proceedings Courts that deal with family issues. Unlike all other courts in the system, these courts are not open to the public. 

Tribunals Service

The Tribunals Service is mandated to make some decisions on such matters as immigration, social security, employment, asylum, criminal injuries’ compensation, pension, education, lands, the child support, tax and employment. The Tribunals Service decisions can be appealed to the right Division of the High Court.

The Common Law Doctrine of a Binding Precedent

It is not everything in a court case which sets a precedent. The case’s content can be classified into two groups:

  • The reason for a decision (“ratio decidendi”), which is not the real decision (Gifford & Salter 1997). What sets a precedent is the rule of law used by judges for judging a legal problem caused by the facts of any case.   
  • Obiter dictum, in judging the case, any law statement that is not important to ratio decidendi is superfluous. It is referred to as obiter dictum (Gifford & Salter 1997). Though the statements of obita dicta do not comprise of any binding precedent, they are the influential power. It can be applied in a later case if the judge involved deems it to be right.

The decisions of the House of Lords are binding on other courts in a legal system, apart from the House of Lords itself. Until, 1966, this house had been bound by its own decisions (Slapper & Kelly 2003). The underlying principle for the old practice is the decisions made by the highest court in the system as final. This has ensured the certainty and finality in the litigation within the law. 

The previous decisions of the House of Lords bind the Court of Appeal. Additionally, the later one is also bound on by its own previous decisions (Partington 2003). However, this general rule has several exceptions. To begin with, it is when there is a disagreement amid two previous decisions of the Court of Appeal. In such a case, the decision is left to the latest court where it chooses the one to follow, and the one is to overrule. The reason why there can be two decisions from the Court of Appeal stating differently is that the second case was unaware of the pronouncement of the first case. In case the previous decision of the Court of Appeal was overruled by the House of Lords, the state overruling would occur where the later one considered the former precedent. However, it is possible for the Court of Appeal’s precedent to be overruled on no basis. In such a case, the Court of Appeal together with the mundane rules of precedent is expected to respect the decisions of the House of Lords (Wheeler 2006).

The decisions of superior courts also bind the High Court (Smith & Williams 2002). The decisions made by the High Court judges bind inferior courts in the hierarchy. The decisions do not bind other judges in the High Court, but are very influential. They are followed in practice. The judges can, however, disagree. This raises the question which the right precedent to be followed Is. Conflicting decisions in the High Court can be authoritatively decided upon by the courts at the highest level of the hierarchy. In case of conflicting decisions in the level of the Court of Appeal, judges in the High Court are required to follow the second decision (Chadwick 2011).

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This paper has assessed the court system in England and Wales. It has been evident that the court system is hierarchical by its nature. It comprises of five levels. The Supreme Court is the highest court followed by the Court of Appeal, the High Court, County and Crown Courts, as well as Magistrates’ Courts and the Tribunals Service in that order. The main responsibility of superior courts is to hear to appeals from the subordinate courts, whilst the inferior courts deal with the cases of the first instance. The courts’ hierarchical nature is mirrored in the judicial precedent system. It implies that lower courts in the system are bound by higher ones, as far as the decisions concerning law matters are considered.

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