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The UK legal system

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of four countries with three distinct jurisdictions, each with its own court system and legal profession:

 England and Wales: Since 1999, Wales has had its own Assembly, which can implement policy but does not have any legislative powers.

 Northern Ireland: Some legislative powers were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999.

 Scotland: Some legislative powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The information provide below is related to careers as a lawyer in England and Wales.

UK legal system

The legal system of England and Wales

The UK has been a member of the EU since 1972. The UK has yet to join much of Europe in a common currency, the Euro, but has signed up to the Human Rights Act 1998. The UK has incorporated other European legislation into UK law and recognises the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in matters of EU law.

The UK does not have a ‘written' constitution and is made up of four main parts:

1. Statute law

2. Common law

3. Conventions

4. Works of authority

Of these, statute law is the most important and takes precedence. Although the Queen is the Head of State, Parliament is regarded as the supreme law-making authority. Much of the relationship between the Sovereign and Parliament is based on tradition rather than statute. The Government has two legislative chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons consists of elected members and the House of Lords consists of elected peers as well as those with inherited titles (currently undergoing reform).

In addition to statute law passed by parliament, legal principles are also based on the decisions of judges interpreting statute law. These collected judicial decisions form the common law. Each of the three UK jurisdictions has developed its own common law or case law. Common law can be changed by legislation, but cannot overrule or change statutes. The last elements of the UK constitution consists of conventions and works of authority which do not have statutory authority, but nevertheless have binding force.

The court system in England and Wales

Court system in England and Wales

The lowest criminal courts or Magistrates' Courts deal with minor offences with more serious cases being heard in the Crown Court, in front of a judge and jury. The Crown Court also hears cases appealed from the Magistrates' Courts on factual points. Cases can be appealed on points of law to the High Court (Queen's Bench Division) and appeals against conviction and sentence are made to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division).

Civil cases are heard firstly in the County Courts or the High Court, which is divided into three divisions: Queen's Bench, Family and Chancery. The Chancery Division considers complex matters such as disputes about wills, trusts, bankruptcy, land law, intellectual property and corporate laws, and the Queen's Bench Division deals with other business matters including contracts, torts or land disputes. The Queen's Bench Division has some specialist sub-divisions, including a Commercial Court, which deals with large and complex business disputes. Cases may be appealed to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and can be appealed from the County Court to the High Court. The House of Lords is the supreme court of appeal with its judicial functions separate from its legislative work.

In addition to the courts there are specialised Tribunals, which hear appeals on decisions, made by various public bodies and Government departments, in areas such as employment, immigration, social security, tax and land.

In England and Wales, unlike in many other countries, the role of a lawyer is divided into two clear and distinct specialisms – that of barrister and solicitor.

Solicitors in England and Wales

A solicitor's role is to give specialist legal advice and help, and they are the main advisers on all matters of law to the public. There are over 60,000 solicitors practising in England and Wales, and their work varies enormously. Generally, solicitors deal with all aspects of legal practice from drafting letters, to researching cases and providing legal advice. They usually qualify into, and practice in, a specialist area, ie family, commercial or media law.

Most solicitors are employed by a law practice or firm which is a partnership of solicitors who offer services to clients. In private practice there are three broad types of firms:

 High street firms – these are usually small firms dealing with individuals with housing, employment and immigration problems.

 Medium sized firms – these firms may offer specialist advice on a niche area (eg media, family or IT), but others will offer a huge spectrum of services from corporate finance to private client.

 Large commercial firms – Magic Circle is a term used to refer to the top five UK law firms: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May. Last year, The Lawyer reported that the Magic Circle accounted for 32% of billings of The Lawyer 100.

Opportunities also exist outside private practice in the UK Government and charitable organisations as well as with some large companies.

Barristers in England and Wales

Barristers usually qualify into, and practice in, a specialist area, but unlike solicitors will spend most of their time researching the law and practising advocacy at the courts. Much of a barrister's work will involve court work, and highly developed presentation and interpersonal skills are essential. Barristers operate from Chambers, which are essentially a collective of barristers much like a firm, although barristers are self-employed and pay a proportion of their earnings to the chambers for space, etc.


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