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Civil justice

Civil law is concerned mostly with disputes between individuals or corporate bodies. Cases must be proved on the balance of probabilities (more than a 50 per cent probability that the defendant is liable).

The administration of civil justice

Most civil disputes do not go to court at all, and most of those that do, do not reach a trial

Civil justice in England and Wales is administered mainly by the county courts and the High Court, with the High Court handling the more substantial and complex cases. In Scotland, the bulk of civil business is handled in the sheriff court. County courts also handle family proceedings, such as divorce, domestic violence and matters affecting children.

Most civil disputes do not go to court at all, and most of those which do, do not reach a trial. Many are dealt with through statutory or voluntary complaints procedures, or through mediation and negotiation. Arbitration is also common in commercial and building disputes. Ombudsmen have the power to determine complaints in the public sector and, on a voluntary basis, in some private sector activities - for example, banking, insurance and pensions.

A large number of tribunals exist, most dealing with cases that involve the rights of private citizens against decisions of the the state in areas such as social security, income tax, mental health and employment. Tribunals in England and Wales deal with over one million cases a year. For more information, follow the link below to the Tribunals Service.

Successful actions taken in the civil courts can result in damages being awarded to the person pursuing the claim. The amount being awarded varies according to the circumstances of each case.

Her Majesty's Courts Service (an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice) is responsible for the administration of the Court of Appeal, High Court, county courts, probate service and a number of tribunals. For more information on the Service's work, follow the link below.

The courts

There are 228 county courts in England and Wales, handling claims in contract and in tort (179 of these also deal with family issues). Issues ranging from defamation to divorce are handled by county courts and High Courts.

The majority of claims dealt with concern the recovery and collection of debt. The next most common types of claim relate to recovery of land and personal injury. Magistrates' courts have limited civil jurisdiction: in family matters (when they sit as a Family Proceedings Court) and in miscellaneous civil orders.

The High Court

The High Court has three divisions:

  • the Queen's Bench Division, which deals with disputes relating to contracts, general commercial matters (in a specialist Commercial Court) and breaches of duty - know as 'liability in tort' - covering claims of negligence, nuisance or defamation
  • the Chancery Division, which deals with disputes relating to land, wills, companies and insolvency
  • the Family Division, which deals with matrimonial matters, including divorce and the welfare of children

Civil justice in Scotland

Most civil business in Scotland is conducted in the Sheriff Courts. These deal with cases including those concerning debt, claims for compensation, divorce, eviction and anti-social behaviour.

The Court of Session is the supreme civil court in Scotland and is the court of appeal for most civil matters.

Tribunals in Scotland deal with a range of matters, including employment, immigration, social security and tax. Most tribunals are supervised by the Scottish Committee of the Council of Tribunals. This committee has a statutory role to review the constitution and the working of tribunals in Scotland.

For more information on civil justice in Scotland, follow the link below.

Civil justice in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Court Service is responsible for the administration of the Supreme Court, county courts, magistrates' courts, coroners' courts and for certain tribunals.

County courts and magistrates' courts differ in a number of ways from those in England and Wales. Although primarily civil law courts, the county courts also handle appeals from the magistrates' courts in both criminal and civil matters.

For more information on the courts in Northern Ireland, follow the link below.

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