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The superior courts

The English legal system has certain elitist characteristics. One of its most striking features is that it has only a few superior courts, presided over by senior judges of great authority and prestige, who hear a very small number of cases; and a lot of lower courts, presided over by less senior judges or magistrates, who hear a much larger number of cases. Naturally, the superior courts tend to deal with the more important cases, while the lower courts deal with the less important.

The different divisions of the High Court deal with all the civil litigation in the country which involves claims of more than a set figure, (today, £50,000), as well as other litigation which is important because of the issues rather than the amount which is at stake. The largest division is the Queen's Bench Division which deals with the great bulk of ordinary civil cases which find their way to the High Court - for example, claims for damages for serious personal injuries, commercial claims, say on insurance policies, or arising out of international contracts between business men,shipping claims arising out of collisions at sea, or claims by cargo owners for damage to goods at sea, and so on. This division also deals with many claims against governmental and other public authorities where they are challenged on the ground that they have acted beyond their powers or in some other unauthorized or illegal manner. Two other divisions deal mainly with claims arising out of trusts, the administration of estates of deceased persons, and actions arising out of contracts relating to land, and with family cases and other matters involving children.

Nearly all the work of the High Court is done by single high court judges, sitting alone. In a few cases only, two or three judges sit together as a 'divisional court' of one or other of the divisions. In the Queen's Bench Division, the most important sort of cases heard in this way are petitions for a review of the legality of governmental acts of various kinds.

From a decision of the High Court it is possible to appeal to the Court of Appeal. This court also sits in divisions, but there is no formal separation between the divisions, so they would be more appropriately called panels. Usually three judges sit in one panel. In rare cases it is possible to carry a further appeal to the House of Lords which is the apex of the judicial system, not only of England, but also of Scotland and Northern Ireland which in all other respects have their own legal systems and judges. Historically the House of Lords which was the final Court of Appeal of the English legal system was the ordinary House of Lords which is still one of the Houses of Parliament. But today, when sitting as a court, the House of Lords bears very little relationship to the legislative House of Lords. Only senior judges, known as Lords of Appeal, sit when the House of Lords deals with legal appeals, though they are also sometimes joined by other senior judges. Usually five judges sit in appeals to the House of Lords. Needless to say, when sitting to hear appeals, the House of Lords is bound like any other court to apply the law as it is, and does not behave as it does when sitting as a branch of the legislature when (in conjunction with the House of Commons) it has power to “change” the law. As in most legal systems, the appeal courts concentrate on questions of law, and do not generally review the findings of fact of lower courts.


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