English court system

The court structure is generally divided into civil and criminal courts. Proceedings are started in the lower courts known as courts of first instance, appeals from the lower courts are progressed through the higher courts, all the way to the Supreme Court. HM Courts and Tribunals Service, a part of the Ministry of Justice, is responsible for the administration of the court system in England and Wales.

The diagram below shows the English court structure, starting from the Magistrates and County courts which are courts of first instance (where proceedings are initiated). The High Court can also be used as a court of first instance for certain high value civil matters.

The County Courts and Magistrates Courts are the courts that most people would come into contact with. In addition to the courts, there are also a number of tribunals dealing in specialist areas such as employment and welfare benefits.

ReferenceSee The classification of law for more information about the differences between civil law and criminal law.

English Court Structure

  • Criminal courts

    Magistrates Court

    The Magistrates Court is the first tier of the criminal justice system, where all criminal cases start. Magistrates can try and dispose of all summary offences, which are the less serious offences which carry a maximum sentence of six months in prison. With indictable offences, they decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial in the Crown Court. Magistrates also hear some ‘hybrid’ or ‘either way’ offences which can be heard on either the Magistrates or Crown courts.

    The Magistrates Court also deals with the recovery of local taxes (council tax). See council tax for more information.

    Crown Court

    The Crown Court deals with all indictable offences – the most serious offences that can lead to long prison sentences. Trials are by jury.

    Court of Appeal Criminal Division

    Appeals from the Crown Court are heard by the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.

  • Civil courts

    County Court

    The County Court is the court where most civil actions are started. These include money claims and consumer disputes over goods and services, personal injury, landlord and tenant disputes and possession proceedings. There are three tracks within the county court where cases are allocated depending on their value and complexity.

    High Court

    The High Court can hear appeals from the County Court but is also a court of first instance, where action can be initiated. Cases that can be initiated in the High Court include defamation, contentious probate and high value personal injury and debt recovery cases.

    The High Court has several divisions tasked with hearing appeals from the lower courts.

    Court of Appeal Civil Division

    The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court as well as multi-track cases in the County Court.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the UK legal system and hears appeals from the Court of Appeal and some civil appeals directly from the High Court.

NOTEUnlike the other courts mentioned here, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the whole of the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.

County CourtThe County Court hears the majority of civil cases. They were originally established to deal with the recovery of small amounts of money but their jurisdiction has been extended. The following actions must be started in the County Court:

  • Money claims for credit products regulated by the Consumer Credit Act.
  • Contractual disputes for less than £25,000.
  • Personal injury claims under £50,000.
  • Mortgages where the amount owed is up to £130,000.

Some hearing centres can also deal with the following:

  • Wills, trusts and probate disputes where the value of the estate is below £30,000.
  • Discrimination claims under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Defamation claims.
  • Bankruptcy and insolvency matters.
  • Some courts in coastal areas have jurisdiction over admiralty cases up to £5,000.
  • Some county courts are designated to deal with divorce cases.

There are two types of Judge in the County Court:

  • District Judges: act as assistant judges and deal with administrative matters such as issue and service of summonses, money paid into court and record keeping. District Judges usually hear small claims cases, i.e. those below £10,000 (£1,000 in personal injury cases).
  • Circuit Judges: courts are presided over by one or more Circuit Judges, appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Lord Chancellor. They must be solicitors or barrister with at least 10 years advocacy experience in the County Court or Crown Court, or District Judges and Recorders of three years standing.

The three tracks in the County Court

Defended claims are allocated to one of three tracks according to their value and complexity. CPR 21.6 sets out the allocation criteria. Allocation is dependent on a number of factors, the value of the claim being the most important, however, in some cases other factors can be taken into account such as the expected length of the trial and the need for expert evidence.

Money claims

REFERENCESee allocation and tracks and directions for more information.

Track allocation based on claim value

  • claims under £10,000 will normally be allocated to the small claims track;

  • claims between £10,000 and £25,000 to the fast track;

  • claims over £25,000 to the multi-track.

Personal injury claims

Personal injury claims are allocated according to their value and complexity.

Personal injury track allocation

  • claims under £1,000 will normally be allocated to the small claims track;

  • claims between £1,000 and £15,000 to the fast track;

  • claims between £15,000 and £50,000 to the multi-track.

  • claims over £50,000 must be started in the High Court.

Personal Injury Tracks

Small claims

The small claims track offers a simplified process for low value claims where a lot of the people involved would be litigants in person (LIPs), and not legally represented.

INFOOne significant characteristic of the small claims track is that, in the majority of cases, costs are not awarded against the losing party. This makes it easier for unrepresented individuals to take action and/or defend claims in the small claims track without having to worry about paying the other side’s costs should they lose. Costs are only awarded in exceptional circumstances, such as when the party’s behaviour has been unreasonable.

The High Court is both a court of first instance (where an action can be commenced) and an appellate court. Its main building is in Royal Courts of Justice in London and it also sits at various District Registries of the High Court. In practice the same court building houses a County Court and a District Registry.

High Court Structure

The High Court has three divisions:

  • The Queen’s Bench Division: hears both tort and contract cases such as breach of contract, defamation, negligence, trespass and some specialist matters.
  • The Chancery Division: deals with bankruptcy and insolvency matters, patents and intellectual property matters, trusts, contentious probate, mortgages and company law.
  • The Family Division deals with defended divorce cases and disputes about the marital home, custody, adoption, guardianship, legitimacy and non-contentious probate cases.

Each division has a head judge and a number of so-called ‘Puisne Judges’ which are lower judges than Appeal Court judges. The word ‘Puisne’ means ‘lesser’, although they are not lesser than a Circuit Judge.

The Queen’s Bench Division

The Queen’s Bench Division encompasses a number of courts:

  • Administrative Court: its jurisdiction is both civil and criminal. The court deals with judicial reviews and hears appeals on points of law from both the Magistrates and Crown Courts. The Administrative Court deals sits at the Royal Courts of Justice in London and there are also regional centres in Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester
  • Commercial Court: deals with complex business disputes involving banking and financial markets, insurance, commodities and shipping matters.
  • Technology and Construction Court:  specialist court that deals with building, construction, engineering and technology disputes and insurance and professional negligence disputes regarding these issues as well as environmental and land use issues.
  • Mercantile Court: deals with all kinds of business disputes including commercial contracts, insurance maters, commodities trading, banking, guarantees, professional negligence, confidential information and restraint of trade.
  • Admiralty Court: specialist court dealing with shipping and maritime issues.
  • Planning Court: part of the Administrative Court created to deal with planning cases such as planning permission and development consents, enforcement of planning control, wayleaves, highways and rights of way, compulsory purchase orders and European Union environmental legislation.

The Magistrates Court is the first tier of the criminal justice system, where the vast majority (over 90%) of criminal cases are disposed of. All criminal cases start in the Magistrates Court and only the most serious offences are transferred to the Crown Court. There are around 300 Magistrates Courts in England and Wales. Traditionally magistrates were lay volunteers who are unpaid and unqualified and most still are, however, nowadays some courts employ District Judges who are paid, qualified lawyers. This is most common in London. Magistrates are also known as justices of the peace.

Lay magistrates rely on their justice’s clerks who are qualified barristers or solicitors and are present at hearings to advice on matters of law and procedure.

Lay magistrates

Magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor and most people between the ages of 21 and 65 who live or work within 15 miles of the Commission area to which they are appointed can apply to be a Magistrate. There is no salary but magistrates can claim expenses and loss of earnings for the time they spend in court.

Magistrates Court layoutThe following are not eligible to become magistrates:

  • People with criminal convictions
  • People who have been banned from driving in the last 5 to 10 years
  • Undischarged bankrupts
  • Members of the armed forces
  • Police officers and traffic wardens

Candidates should have the following qualities:

  • good character;
  • understanding and communication skills;
  • social awareness;
  • maturity and sound temperament;
  • sound judgment;
  • commitment and reliability; and
  • they should be prepared to sit at least 26 times (and preferably 35 times) per year.

Training is required to be a magistrate, it will add up to about 18 hours, or 3 full days, as well as a few additional meetings. New Magistrates have to achieve four basic competencies:

  • an applied understanding of the framework within which magistrates operate;
  • an ability to follow basic law and procedure;
  • an ability to think and act judicially; and
  • an ability to work as an effective member of a team.

Magistrates are appraised during their first two years to check that they have acquired the competencies. Retirement age is 70 and they can be removed by the Lord Chancellor for failure to carry out their duties or misconduct.

In most cases, three magistrates sit on the bench. The magistrate sitting in the middle is called the ‘Chair’ and has control over the proceedings.

District judges

In some areas, the large number of cases tried in the Magistrates Courts make it necessary to have professional judges working full time. District Judges are solicitors or barristers of at least seven years’ standing, appointed on the advice of the Lord Chancellor. They are paid by their local authority and retirement age is 70 but some stay till 72. Unlike lay magistrates, District Judges usually sit alone.

Justice’s Clerk

The Clerk is a qualified lawyer who advises the magistrates on procedure and points of law and on the available penalties and the criteria for their use. The Clerk sits beneath the bench. Clerks also perform administrative work such as scheduling hearings, conducting means enquiries, preparing information, issuing summonses and warrants granted and collecting fines. A Clerk must be a barrister or solicitor of at least five years’ standing. Some of these tasks may be delegate to assistant clerks.

Fines officers

Fines officers are court staff authorised to enforce fines. Many decisions that used to require a hearing are now dealt with by the fines officers.


There is a solicitor or barrister representing the defendant and another solicitor or barrister for the prosecution, both sit in front of the Clerk.


The Magistrates Court jurisdiction is mostly criminal, however, it also has limited civil jurisdiction.

Criminal trials

Criminal OffencesThe Magistrates Courts try and dispose of all summary offences which make up the vast majority of criminal offences. Additionally, some more serious offences known as ‘hybrid’ or ‘either way’ can also by tried by magistrates. The most serious offences must be tried by jury in the Crown Court, however, Crown Court trials can only take place once magistrates have held a preliminary examination to determine whether there is enough evidence against the accused to proceed with a jury trial, this means all criminal trials start in the Magistrates Court.

REFERENCESee  criminal offences: trial and jurisdiction for more information about the various types of offences and how they are tried in court.

Family proceedings

Magistrates Courts deal with applications and proceedings for care and supervision orders of children (under 18s).

  • Care orders are made when children are considered to be at risk or harm or not receiving appropriate care from their parents. Care orders transfer responsibility to the local authority to find suitable accommodation for and support the child; this situation is commonly referred to as ‘being in care’.
  • Supervision orders allow local authorities to use social workers to supervise the care of the child without removing them from their parents’ home.
  • Education supervision orders are made on request of local education authorities when children are not receiving appropriate full time education.

Youth Court

When children (10 to 13 years old) and young persons (14 to 17 years old) commit a criminal offence, cases are heard by magistrates sitting as a Youth Court. Youth Courts are subject to different rules from hearings involving adults. The hearings are always private and they must take place either in a different building or room from regular hearings or on a different day. There is a special panel of magistrates specialising in youth cases and at least one of the three magistrates must be a woman.

Magistrates Court JurisdictionThe court may impose the following penalties to young offenders:

  • a fine;
  • a community order or probation order;
  • a curfew order;
  • a supervision order;
  • an attendance centre order; or
  • for more serious offences, detention in a young offenders institution .

Domestic Court

Magistrates Courts also deals with domestic proceedings. These are held in private, with only the parties involved and their legal representatives and witnesses present.

Domestic proceedings include:

  • custody;
  • maintenance and child support payments;
  • visitation rights;
  • adoption;
  • injunctions; and
  • non-molestation orders in domestic violence cases.

Compensation orders

In addition financial penalties for criminal offences (fines), Magistrates Courts can also impose compensation orders which are a simple way for victims of a criminal act to obtain redress without having to issue proceedings in the County Court. Compensation orders are made in criminal damage and theft cases. While fines are punitive in nature, intended as both a punishment for a crime and a deterrent against future offences, compensation orders are similar to damages awarded by the civil courts as redress for losses incurred. They are paid to the victim(s) rather than the court.

REFERENCESee court fines and financial penalties.

Council tax recovery

Local authorities can apply for a liability order to be made against someone who hasn’t paid their council tax. A liability order allows enforcement of the debt in various ways:

  • Attachment of earnings. Getting your employer to make deductions from your wages if you are employed. See attachment of earnings for more information.
  • Deductions from benefits. The council can get the DWP to make deductions from benefits such as Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Pension Credit or Income Support.
  • Bailiffs. The council can send bailiffs to your home to seize goods to be sold. See bailiffs for more information.
  • Bankruptcy. If your debt is over £5,000, the council could petition your bankruptcy. This may include arrears from several years. See bankruptcy for more information.
  • Charging order. The council could apply for a charge on your property to secure the debt on your home if you own it and the debt is over £1,000. This doesn’t happen often. See charging orders for more information.
REFERENCESee council tax for more information.

The Crown Court is a single court that sits in venues throughout the country. In London, it is known as The Central Criminal Court,  The Old Bailey. The Crown Court deals with the more serious criminal offences that have to be tried by a jury of 12 people. A majority of 10 – 2 is enough to obtain a conviction.

All indictable offences must be tried in the Crown Court. Hybrid or ‘either way’ offences can be tried in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court. Examples of indictable offences include:

Prison bars

  • murder
  • manslaughter
  • attempted murder
  • robbery
  • aggravated burglary
  • rape
  • blackmail
  • arson with intent
  • conspiracy
REFERENCESee criminal offences for more information.

The Court is presided by a judge who will usually sit alone. Crown court judges can be:

  • High Court judges, largely from the Queen’s Bench Division.
  • Circuit judges which are solicitors or barristers of 10 years standing, or recorders of at least 3 years standing.
  • Recorders who are part-time judges and barristers or solicitors of 10 years standing

The more serious offences are tried by the more senior judges, such as High Court judges, the less serious by the circuit judges and recorders.

The Crown Court also hears appeals from the Magistrates Court either regarding a point of law or on fact. When an appeal is heard, the judge will be joined by 2, 3 or 4 magistrates. The Crown Court may allow the appeal and reduce or increase the sentence imposed by the Magistrates Court. Some cases heard at the Magistrates Court are transferred to the Crown Court for sentencing if the magistrates think the sentence imposed should be harsher than the maximum sentence magistrates have the power to impose.

The Court of Appeal is split into two divisions:

 Civil DivisionCriminal Division
Headed byThe Master of the RollsThe Lord Chief Justice
Appeals fromCounty Court (fast track and multi track)
High Court (all divisions)
Employment Appeal Tribunal
Crown Court (conviction and sentencing)
Referrals from the Home Secretary and the Attorney General

Appeals are usually heard by three judges, occasionally only two. Five or more judges can sit for the most important cases. A majority decision is sufficient. Court of Appeal judges are referred to as Lords Justices of Appeal. In most cases the court rehears the case without any witnesses or fresh evidence, unless that evidence was not available at the time of the original hearing.

If there is new evidence in a civil case, a new trial may be ordered. In a criminal case, a conviction may be quashed on new evidence.

The outcome of the appeal can be:

  • the original decision is upheld;
  • the original decision is reversed or partly reversed;
  • a higher or lower amount of damages may be awarded;
  • a new costs order can be made;
  • a sentence can be changed.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the UK legal system and the final court of appeal. The Supreme Court replaced the House of Lords as the final appeal point when The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 abolished the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. The Supreme Court took over the judicial functions of the House of Lords in October 2009.

There are 12 Justices in the Supreme Court, supported by legal and executive staff. Most appeals are heard by five judges, although the minimum number is three, but five judges usually sit. As in the Court of Appeal, a majority decision is sufficient and dissenting judgments are expressed.

The decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on all the lower courts but the Supreme Court is not bound by its own previous decisions.

The Supreme Court hears appeals from the whole of the UK including Scotland and Northern Ireland. Some cases may be referred to the European Court.

In addition to the court system, there are a number of specialist courts created to deal with specific issues, these are the statutory tribunals that deal with matters in a less formal and more simplified way.  They are usually headed by a legally qualified chairman and two lay members who have specialist knowledge of the issues dealt with in the tribunal.

Tribunals Structure

There are over 70 different tribunals, the most important are:

  • Employment Tribunals – They are the most important of all tribunals and the ones with the highest volume of cases. They deal with issues such as redundancy, dismissal and workplace equality where they have sole jurisdiction, as well as others like unpaid wages and holiday pay where claims can also be brought on the County Court.
  • Social Security Tribunals – They deal with issues regarding benefits such as ESA, JSA, income support, housing benefit and universal credit.
  • Commissioners of Income Tax – They hear appeals by tax payers against assessments made by the Inland Revenue.
  • Rent Tribunals – They set fair rents between landlord and tenant.

In addition to statutory tribunals, there are also tribunals associated with trade and professional associations that deal with disputes involving their members. Their jurisdiction is usually by contract, in that by joining the relevant association the member accepts the jurisdiction of the tribunal, however, some tribunals have powers defined by statute, such as the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

Advantages and disadvantages of tribunals

  • Advantages
    • They are more informal than courts and often geared towards unrepresented litigants (litigants in person).
    • Cases are dealt with faster than in the courts.
    • They are supposed to be cheaper than going to court, although the high employment tribunal fees put this into question.
    • Tribunals don’t usually make costs orders against the losing party, this makes them a safer bet than court for many individuals.
    • Unlike courts that deal with a wide range of cases, tribunals specialise in one area and have specialists in that particular field on board.
  • Disadvantages
    • Legal aid is not available in most cases.
    • There can be inconsistencies in the decisions reached by tribunals.
    • Some cases are only heard in private.