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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Introduction to the judicial system

The United Kingdom does not have a single, unified judicial system — England and Wales have one system, Scotland another and Northern Ireland a third.

Criminal and civil law

Criminal law is concerned with establishing and maintaining social order and protecting the community. The ‘rules’ of criminal law are intended to encourage and support safe and orderly living for everyone. Those who break these laws can be prosecuted. If they are found guilty, they can then be fined or sent to prison, or both.

The criminal law presumes that each individual is innocent until proven guilty. The level of proof that is required is that the evidence presented should establish the person’s guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

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) rather than the 'beyond reasonable doubt' standard applied in criminal cases.

In both criminal and civil cases, the courts make decisions on an adversarial rather than an inquisitorial basis. This means that the prosecution and defence test the credibility and reliability of the evidence their opponent presents to the court. The judge makes decisions based on the evidence presented.

The judicial system and European Community law

The ultimate source of law is statutes passed by the Westminster or Scottish Parliament, but there is also a legal duty to comply with European Community law. UK courts must apply the latter in cases where the two conflict. A statute can give power to a minister, local authority or other executive body to make delegated legislation.

EC law, which applies in the UK, comes from EC treaties, Community legislation adopted under them, and decisions of the European Court of Justice. That court has the highest authority to decide points of EC law.

Human rights

The European Convention on Human Rights was built into UK law under the Human Rights Act 1998. It includes the right to a fair trial, freedom of thought and expression, and respect for family and private life. All public authorities, including the courts, must comply with these rights. However, if they conflict with an Act of Parliament, the courts can make a declaration of incompatibility and Parliament must then decide what to do.

The judicial system in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's legal system is broadly similar to that in England and Wales. The Lord Chancellor is responsible for court administration through the Northern Ireland Court Service. The Northern Ireland Office (under the Secretary of State) deals with policy and legislation concerning criminal law, the police and the penal system. The Lord Chancellor also has general responsibility for legal aid, advice and assistance.

Follow the links below for more information on Northern Ireland's judicial system.

The judicial system in Scotland

The Scottish Executive Justice Department, under the Minister for Justice, is responsible for civil and criminal law and justice, social work services, police, prisons, court administration, legal aid, and liaison with the legal profession in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament makes laws on matters devolved to it. In these areas, it can amend or repeal existing Acts of the UK Parliament and pass new legislation of its own for Scotland. It is responsible for: most health issues; education and training; local government, social services, housing and planning; inward investment and promotion of trade; economic development and tourism; most aspects of law and home affairs, including prisons, the prosecution system and the courts; the police and fire services; the road network, bus policy, ports and harbours; agriculture, the environment, fisheries, forestry and food; the natural and built heritage; sport, culture, the arts and language; and statistics, public registers and records.

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

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