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United Kingdom
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The United Kingdom has three legal systems.[1] English law, which applies in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland law, which applies in Northern Ireland, are based on common-law principles. Scots law, which applies in Scotland, is a pluralistic system based on civil-law principles, with common law elements dating back to the High Middle Ages. The Treaty of Union, put into effect by the Acts of Union in 1707, guaranteed the continued existence of a separate law system for Scotland. The Acts of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 contained no equivalent provision but preserved the principle of separate courts to be held in Ireland, now Northern Ireland

The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (usually just referred to, as "The House of Lords") was the highest court in the land for all criminal and civil cases in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and for all civil cases in Scots law, but in October 2009 was replaced by the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.[2]

In England and Wales, the court system is headed by the Supreme Court of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Courts of Northern Ireland follow the same pattern. In Scotland the chief courts are the Court of Session, for civil cases, and the High Court of Justiciary, for criminal cases. Sheriff courts have no equivalent outside Scotland as these Courts deal both with criminal and civil caseloads.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the highest court of appeal for several independent Commonwealth countries, the British overseas territories, and the British Crown dependencies. There are also immigration courts with UK-wide jurisdiction — the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and Special Immigration Appeals Commission. The Employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal have jurisdiction throughout Great Britain, but not Northern Ireland.


Three legal systems

There are three distinct legal jurisdictions in the United Kingdom: England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.[3] Each has its own legal system.


English law

"English law" is a term of art. It refers to the legal system administered by the courts in England and Wales. The ultimate body of appeal is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. They rule on both civil and criminal matters. English law is renowned as being the mother of the common law. English law can be described as having its own distinct legal doctrine, distinct from civil law legal systems since 1189. There has been no major codification of the law, and judicial precedents are binding as opposed to persuasive. In the early centuries, the justices and judges were responsible for adapting the Writ system to meet everyday needs, applying a mixture of precedent and common sense to build up a body of internally consistent law, e.g., the Law Merchant began in the Pie-Powder Courts see Court of Piepowder (a corruption of the French "pieds-poudrés" or "dusty feet", meaning ad hoc marketplace courts). As Parliament developed in strength, and subject to the doctrine of separation of powers, legislation gradually overtook judicial law making so that, today, judges are only able to innovate in certain very narrowly defined areas. Time before 1189 was defined in 1276 as being time immemorial.

After the Acts of Union, in 1707, English law has been one of two legal systems in the same kingdom and has been influenced by Scots law, most notably in the development and integration of the law merchant by Lord Mansfield and in time the development of the law of negligence. Scottish influence may have influenced the abolition of the forms of action in the nineteenth century and extensive procedural reforms in the twentieth.

Northern Irish legal system

The law of Northern Ireland is a common law system. It is administered by the courts of Northern Ireland, with ultimate appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in both civil and criminal matters. The law of Northern Ireland is closely similar to English law, the rules of common law having been imported into the Kingdom of Ireland under English rule. However there are still important differences.

The sources of the law of Northern Ireland are English common law, and statute law. Of the latter, statutes of the Parliaments of Ireland, of the United Kingdom and of Northern Ireland are in force, and latterly statutes of the devolved Assembly.

Scots law

Scots law is a unique legal system with an ancient basis in Roman law. Grounded in uncodified civil law dating back to the Corpus Juris Civilis, it also features elements of common law with medieval sources. Thus Scotland has a pluralistic, or 'mixed', legal system, comparable to that of South Africa, and, to a lesser degree, the partly codified pluralistic systems of Louisiana and Quebec. Since the Acts of Union, in 1707, it has shared a legislature with the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland and England & Wales each retained fundamentally different legal systems, but the Union brought English influence on Scots law and vice versa. In recent years Scots law has also been affected by both European law under the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament which may pass legislation within its areas of legislative competence as detailed by the Scotland Act 1998.

United Kingdom legislatures

United Kingdom Parliament

The Parliament of the United Kingdom is bicameral, with an upper house, the House of Lords, and a lower house, the House of Commons. The House of Lords includes two different types of members: the Lords Spiritual (the senior bishops of the Church of England) and the Lords Temporal (members of the Peerage); its members are not elected by the population at large. The House of Commons is a democratically elected chamber. The two Houses meet in separate chambers in the Palace of Westminster (commonly known as the "Houses of Parliament"), in the City of Westminster in London. By constitutional convention, all government ministers, including the Prime Minister, are members of the House of Commons or House of Lords.

Parliament evolved from the early medieval councils that advised the sovereigns of England and Scotland. In theory, power is vested not in Parliament, but in the "Queen-in-Parliament" (or "King-in-Parliament"). The Queen-in-Parliament is often, incorrectly, said to be a completely sovereign authority. In 2002 Thoburn v Sunderland City Council confirmed in English law the principle of the supremacy of EU law over national law (see Costa v. ENEL and Van Gend en Loos).

In modern times, real power is vested in the House of Commons and the European Commission; the Sovereign acts only as a figurehead and the powers of the House of Lords are greatly limited.

Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly (Irish: Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann,[4] Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlann Semmlie)[5] is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas that are not explicitly reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive. It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.

The latest incarnation of the Assembly was established under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord aimed at bringing an end to Northern Ireland's violent 30-year Troubles. It is based on the principle of power-sharing under the D'Hondt method to ensure that Northern Ireland's largest political communities, the unionist and nationalist communities both participate in governing the region. The Assembly is a unicameral, democratically elected body comprising 108 members who are known as Members of the Legislative Assembly, or MLAs. Members are elected under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation.

Scottish Parliament

The public entrance of the distinctive Scottish Parliament building, opened in October 2004.

The Scottish Parliament (Scottish Gaelic: Pàrlamaid na h-Alba; Scots: Scots Pairlament) is located in the Holyrood area of the capital Edinburgh. The Parliament, which is informally referred to as "Holyrood"[6] (cf. "Westminster"), is a democratically elected body of 129 members who are known as Members of the Scottish Parliament or MSPs. Members are elected for four year terms under the Additional Member System of proportional representation. As a result, 73 MSPs represent individual geographical constituencies elected by the plurality voting system ("first past the post"), with a further 56 returned from eight additional member regions, each electing seven MSPs.[7] The original Parliament of Scotland (or "Estates of Scotland") was the national legislature of the independent Kingdom of Scotland and existed from the early thirteenth century until the Kingdom of Scotland merged with the Kingdom of England under the Acts of Union 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.[8] As a consequence, the Parliament of Scotland merged with Parliament of England, to form the Parliament of Great Britain, which sat at Westminster in London.[8]

Legal areas

While England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland diverge in the more detailed rules of common law and equity, and while there are certain fields of legislative competence devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London, there are substantive fields of law which apply across the United Kingdom.

Labour law

Company law

Commercial law

Competition law

Intellectual property

See also


  1. ^ "The UK has three legal systems, operating in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland",, accesses 12 March 2007
  2. ^ Constitutional reform: A Supreme Court for the United KingdomPDF (252 KiB), Department for Constitutional Affairs; accessed 22 May 2006.
  3. ^ pdf filePDF (64.6 KiB) "For the purposes of the English conflict of laws, every country in the world which is not part of England and Wales is a foreign country and its foreign laws. This means that not only totally foreign independent countries such as France or Russia... are foreign countries but also British Colonies such as the Falkland Islands. Moreover, the other parts of the United Kingdom - Scotland and Northern Ireland - are foreign countries for present purposes, as are the other British Islands, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey." Conflict of Laws, JG Collier, Fellow of Trinity Hall and lecturer in Law, University of Cambridge
  4. ^ "Comhaontú idir Rialtas na hÉireann agus Rialtas Ríocht Aontaithe na Breataine Móire agus Thuaisceart Éireann ag Bunú Comhlachtaí Forfheidhmithe" (in Irish) (html). Oireachtas. Retrieved 2008-06-08. 
  5. ^ "Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch - Tha Boord" (in Ulster Scots). Ulster-Scots Agency. Retrieved 2007-05-08. 
  6. ^ "Scottish Parliament Word Bank". Scottish Parliament. Retrieved 14 November 2006. 
  7. ^ "Scottish Parliament MSPs". Scottish Parliament. Retrieved 14 November 2006. 
  8. ^ a b "The First Scottish Parliament: the Middle Ages – 1707". Scottish Parliament. Retrieved 14 November 2006. 


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