IV. The organization of the courts in Great Britain

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IV. The organization of the courts in Great Britain

The chief judicial office in the nation is the Lord Chancellor. He is appointed by the Queen on recommendation of the Prime Minister. He serves at the Prime Minister’s pleasure. He is both a political officer and a judge. When he leaves office as Chancellor, he is entitled to retain his judicial salary and position.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords is the highest court in England. Both historically and in the theory of the law, it is the same institution which is the upper house of Parliament. For judicial purposes it is usually composed only of the Lords in Ordinary1. The Lord Chancellor is the highest judge in the kingdom. The other Lords have been promoted from the regular English courts or from the Scottish or Northern Irish judiciary. In addition, former Chancellors and former and present judges who happen to hold peerages are also qualified to sit with the law lords.

The law lords receive life peerage upon their appointment to the House. Hence they have permanent appointments. Although they may retire from active service upon reaching retirement age as former judges who hold peerages, they remain qualified for judicial service.

The House of Lords hears appeals from the English Court of Appeals. In exceptional circumstances it may hear direct appeals from the High Court. It also is the final appellate court for Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is thus a secondary level of appeal, the court of last resort2. The House of Lords hears only a very limited number of cases.

In 1969, it disposed of 47 English appeals. Most of the filtering of appellate cases is done by the Court of Appeal. It freely grants leave to appeal in those cases in which important legal questions are in doubt.

The law lords normally sit in panels of five. The Lord Chancellor names the five lords who will sit on any given case. Normally they sit in a small committee room in Westminster Palace, although they may go to the judgment. The lords deliver their judgment seriatim, so each pronounces his opinion and vote on the case at hand. In some cases, one lord will simply agree with the remarks of a colleague, thus obviating the need for a lengthy speech, but in either instance each lord still pronounces his own separate opinion.

The Court of Appeal

The intermediate appellate tribunal is the Court of Appeal. The Master of the Rolls3 and 14 Lord Justices4 constitute this court. High Court Judges may also be assigned to sit in specific cases, particularly criminal appeals. The Lord Chief Justice, who presides over the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, normally sits when criminal appeals are under consideration.

The Master of the Rolls is the presiding judge of the Court of Appeal. He has normally served in other judicial offices before being promoted to this post. It is considered to be the third most prestigious of the judicial appointments, following those of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. The title “Master of the Rolls” is another remnant of the past; in earlier times the Master was the clerk who kept the records or parchment rolls of the Lord Chancellor. Gradually, he was granted (or simply took) additional duties, including those of determining which actions should be entered upon the rolls, and thus became a judge.

The Lord Justices are also promoted from the judicial ranks. They are normally judges who have proven their abilities on the trial bench. In a few instances, a barrister has been directly appointed to this court. Although the Prime Minister is formally responsible for these appointments, the Lord Chancellor makes the effective selection. The appointments are for life, subject to mandatory retirement at age 75.

For civil appeals, the court normally sits in panels of three Lord Justices, with the senior Lord Justice (or the Master of Rolls, if he is part of the panel) presiding. A High Court Judge may be assigned to serve on a panel, if an additional judge is necessary.

The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court and from a few specialized administrative tribunals. Four divisions of the court normally sit for civil business, each division consisting of three Lord Justices. The Court of Appeal provides the only appellate review for most cases.

The Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal hears appeals from criminal convictions. This court was created to replace the old Court of Criminal Appeal in 1966. Criminal appeals are usually heard by a panel of three judges, one of whom is a trial judge temporarily assigned from trial duties, and a third designated in accordance with available manpower. This is supposed to combine the appellate judge’s appreciation for the abstract development of the law with the trial judge’s recognition of the problems of proof and trial experience. The Lord Chief Justice frequently presides in the Criminal Division; he is ex officio an additional judge of the court.

The presentation before the court is oral. The barrister normally emphasizes the facts of the case, as found in the court below. At the end of the presentations, the three members of the panel will engage in a hurried, whispered conference. In criminal cases they deliver a per curium decision5, without articulated dissent.

The High Court

The High Court is a small tribunal with no more than 75 judges. The Queen formally appoints the judges, on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, who makes the real selection. The justices have life tenure, subject to retirement at age 75. Like the Lords of the Court of Appeal, they receive salaries. The court is subdivided into three separate divisions, which are independent of one another. The divisions are the Queen’s Bench Division, the Chancery Division and the Family Division. The Queen’s Bench Division is concerned with the ordinary business of the common law, suits for damages. Its judges also serve on the Crown Court, the tribunal which tries the more important criminal cases. The Chancery deals with those matters which were the province of the medieval Chancellor, injunctions, corporations and the like. Its business is principally concerned with business law and with property arrangements. The Family Division deals with cases involving family relations, including non-contentious probate, divorce cases and guardianships.

Each division has its own presiding judge. The Lord Chief Justice heads the Queen’s Bench Division; the Vice-Chancellor heads the Chancery Division; and the President heads the Family Division.

These three divisions were unified into one High Court in a major judicial reform in 1875. The reform taking effect in 1972 reallocated some of the responsibilities among the three divisions. The unification permits each division to grant relief which was formerly within the province of one division exclusively. So a plaintiff may demand both damages and an injunction in one suit, rather than being forced to sue for damages in one court (the Queen’s Bench) and an injunction in another (the Chancery). Despite formal unification, the courts are still in many cases separate. Judges are assigned to a division at the time of appointment, although they may be transferred for a single case or permanently.

Except when hearing appeals, or in limited instances, when extraordinary remedies are sought, High Court judges sit alone. They try civil cases alone determining issues of both law and fact. England abolished the jury in civil cases in 1933, except for a few cases like defamation, false imprisonment or fraud. Thus a single judge determines the right of parties under contracts, their claims based on negligence, their property rights, the validity of their wills, or the powers of a corporate official. In contrast, in serious criminal cases, there is always a jury unless the defendant pleads guilty; even the defendant cannot waive this right.

The High Court is a central court. It sits in London. Some of the justices, however, also go on circuit around the country. Until 1972, these itinerant courts were called Assizes. High Court judges went to all parts of the country to try criminal and civil cases. Under the reorganization which created the Crown Courts to deal with criminal business in the provinces, the old separate Assize was abolished. High Court judges still travel to the provinces, but they no longer need separate special commissions for each town in which they will sit. The new arrangement has eliminated much of the local pageantry and consequently increased the time available for adjudication of cases. The Lord Chancellor designated the cities in which Crown Court is held.



1. Lords in Ordinary – назначаемые члены палаты лордов для рассмотрения апелляций

2. the court of last resort – суд последней инстанции

3. the Master of the Rolls – председатель апелляционного суда и хранитель судебных архивов

4. Lord Justices – судьи апелляционного суда

5. per curium decision – решение большинства


Active vocabulary

To hear appeals

the court of last resort

to grant leave to do smth.

To be promoted to one’s post

To deliver a decision

To have life tenure

Non-contentious probate


To sue for damages

A suit


False imprisonment


A defendant

To plead guilty

To waive the right to do smth.


Assignment I. Answer the questions.

1. What is the general definition of the House of Lords?

2. Who represents the House of Lords?

3. How is the judgment delivered?

4. How many judges constitute the Court of Appeal?

5. How are they appointed?

6. How many divisions are there in the Court of Appeal?

7. What kind of presentation is traditional in the Court of Appeal?

8. What is High Court?

9. What are the three divisions of the High Court?

10. How are civil and criminal cases heard in the High Court?

11. Do High Court judges travel to provinces?


Assignment II. Topics for discussion.

1. The House of Lords

2. Court of Appeal

3. High Court


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