Comparison and Critical Appraisal of the English Court System

Table of contents


A) The role and function of the Magistrates’ court:

All criminal cases begin in the Magistrates’ Court and are heard by three magistrates or a district judge, but the court also has jurisdiction over certain civil matters (JEW, 2012). For the most part however, the majority of cases heard in the Magistrates’ Court are criminal in nature. There are no juries in the Magistrates’ Court. The Magistrates’ Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over summary offences (e.g. motoring offences, minor criminal damage, common assault, drunk and disorderly conduct) and more serious offences (e.g. theft, serious assaults and drug offences), however the latter are often referred to as ‘either way’ cases as the court or the accused may choose to have these tried in the Crown Court (JEW, 2012). Certain matters are beyond the jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court -relating to the seriousness of the offence, these include murder, rape and arson. These are referred to as indictable offences. Indictable offences will be heard in the Crown Court as the court of first instance.

The jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court is also limited by sentencing power which is confined to sentences amounting to less than ?5000, unpaid community services or six months imprisonment (twelve months for two or more offences). Magistrates’ Courts are able to give combination sentences, such as a fine and community service. Often cases are heard in the Magistrates’ Court and referred to the Crown court for sentencing where the sentence required exceeds the jurisdiction of the Magistrates Court (UKCLE, 2012).

The power of the Magistrates’ Court with regards to the appropriate offences therefore is to determine bail, guilt or innocence and depending on the severity, the sentence. Magistrates also play a role in committal hearings where they must determine whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant referral to the Crown court. For example, in the case of murder the magistrate will not make a finding of guilt, however will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a case. This is generally confined to an evaluation of the paper-based evidence submitted, i.e. the docket and based on an evaluation of all this evidence will decide whether or not to pass the case onto the Crown Court.

The Magistrates’ Court, through its administrative officers also performs important such as public funding applications and witness orders. This forms a part of the civil jurisdiction that the Court has. The Magistrates’ Court also has jurisdiction over matters involving offenders between the ages of 10 and 18, licensing procedures and certain matters relating to family proceedings, such as domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, adoption, care proceedings and truancy. Therefore, the Magistrates’ Court plays an important role in family matters and the administration of the Youth Court.

The role and function of County Court

The County Court deals with civil (non-criminal matters) which arise when an individual, natural or juristic believes their rights have been infringed. These include claims based on contract and tort where there is an award on the basis of a wrong done to the claimant. Certain County Courts also deal with matters of insolvency, bankruptcy, wills, trusts and estates (where the value of the matter is not in excess of ?30000), matters under the Race Relations Act 1976 and any other matter that the parties agree to have heard in the County Court. Magistrates have jurisdiction to hear certain civil cases, however the more complex cases are generally referred to the County Court (JEW, 2012).

Most County Courts are assigned to either a circuit judge or a district judge. Circuit judges are senior to district judges and generally deal with more complex matters, generally hearing matters worth more than ?15000, although they do have monetary jurisdiction over smaller disputes worth between ?5000 and ?15000. District judges generally oversee a number of cases in order to ensure that they are running effectively, although they do hear cases themselves. District judges deal with less complex matters than circuit judges such as repossession and assessment of damages in uncontested matters. Although civil matters usually deal with the payment of monetary damages, County Court judges do have the jurisdiction to order the arrest and prosecution of any party that does not comply with an order of court. The majority of cases are not heard before a jury (with exceptions being libel and slander trials) and judges decide these matters on a civil burden of proof, i.e. a balance of probabilities.

County Courts also deal with certain family proceedings, however these are generally dealt with in specialist courts. Family circuit judges deal with two kinds of cases, namely private cases involving disputes between parents and their children and public cases, dealing with the involvement of the local council in family matters (DoJ, 2012).

Decisions of the County Court may be appealed to the appropriate Division of the High Court. The County Court Monetary Claims Centre provides essential support for the County Court and deals with designated money claims.


The main comparison between the two courts is the subject matter jurisdiction over which they preside, namely civil versus criminal. The County Court deals exclusively with matters of civil liability whilst the Magistrates’ Court deals with both civil and criminal matters, however the majority of cases heard in the Magistrates’ Court are criminal in nature. To the extent therefore that the County Court cannot hear criminal matters, the Magistrates’ Court represents the criminal equivalent. To this extent they both represent the court of first instance to the extent that they have jurisdiction over the matter, which may be limited by geographical jurisdiction, subject-matter jurisdiction and monetary jurisdiction (in the case of the magistrates’ court, this includes sentencing jurisdiction). This is particularly evident in the level of civil liability complexity dealt with in Magistrates’ Court, which are simple applications not requiring extended adjudication. The County Court also does not hear matters of young persons, unlike the Magistrates’ Court who hears matters in the Youth Court separately from the Adult court.

There are different burdens of proof in each court, with civil matters requiring the claimant prove the existence of the claim on a balance of probabilities, which is arguably higher than the standard in the criminal court which requires the state, represented by a prosecutor, prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. Magistrates’ Court have a different method of adjudication, either through a district judge or through a panel of three justices of the peace along with a law clerk to ensure that all relevant matters of law are considered in adjudication, in contrast to the County Court where the matters are heard by only legally trained judges.

B) Position of the Court in the English Court Hierarchy

For the respective subject-matter jurisdiction, both courts represent the court of first instance which means that they are the first step in legal proceedings (excluding the additional specialist tribunals) in their matter. Although the Magistrates’ Court can be the court of first instance for simple civil matters, generally this is a role performed by the County Court (JEW, 2012).

Appeals from the Magistrates’ Court are directed to either the Crown Court which has jurisdiction over criminal matters and limited jurisdiction over civil matters both on appeal and as a court of first instance. The Crown Court is the only court that has subject-matter jurisdiction over indictment cases.

Appeals may also be directed to the appropriate Division of the High Court for civil and criminal matters, acting, also as a court of first instance in certain civil matters. Appeals from the County Court are heard by the High Court and in certain cases can appeal to the Court of Appeals’ civil division. The High Court consists of three divisions, namely the Queen’s Bench, the Chancery and Family division. These are not necessarily separate courts, but rather have distinct practices and procedures designed specifically for their individual purposes. The Queen’s Bench hears matters of tort and contract, and serves as a commercial, admiralty and administrative court, whilst the family division hears matters on matrimonial proceedings, proceedings relating to the welfare of children and probate service, and the Chancery deals with matters of corporate law, companies and patents (JEW, 2012; DoJ, 2012).

From the High Court and the Crown Court, the next highest court is the Court of Appeals with respective divisions for criminal and civil matters. The Court of Appeals only hears matters of appeal and does not function as a court of first instance in any matter. The Criminal Division only hears matters of appeal from the Crown Court, whilst the Civil Division hears civil appeals.

Appeals from Court of Appeal go to Supreme Court which functions as the highest supreme court in the country. In matters of human rights may be further appealed to the European Court of Justice. The Supreme Court was formed by the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, prior to which the highest court was the House of Lords. In exceptional circumstances, the Supreme Court may hear appeals from the High Court. The Supreme Court has the right to interpret matters of European law and the European Convention on Human Rights, as imported into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998 as they apply to U.K law.

C) Roles of People within the Court During the Visit

Magistrates Court:

District Judges: adjudicates the case on the basis of the facts presented by either the plaintiff or the prosecution and must have at least two years experience as a deputy district judge and at least seven years experience as either a barrister or solicitor. These judges deal directly with complex issues of law and sit alone as opposed to a panel (justices of the peace and court clerk).

Prosecution: In criminal matters, the person represents the case against the defendant on behalf of the state.

Solicitor: Representative of the plaintiff/applicant or defendant/respondent and is responsible for acting on behalf of their client in the legal proceedings.

Defendant: The person accused of the crime in a criminal matter. In this case, the defendant was on bail and therefore sat next to their defense lawyer. There was one matter where the defendant was in state custody, and in this case they sat next to a correctional officer.

Depositions clerk: Ensuring that the correct persons are in court at the correct times, as well as communicating with the defendant or parties to the dispute about the proceedings. The clerk records the proceedings and calls each witness to give evidence when necessary.

County Court:

District Judge: adjudicates and decides the facts of the case, however for the duration of this visit, the cases before the judge seemed started and uncontroversial as he moved through them quite quickly. District judges are junior to a circuit judges and hear mostly uncontested claims, mortgage repossessions and cases allocated to the small claims track.

Depositions Clerk: Ensuring that the correct persons are in court at the correct times, as well as communicating with the defendant or parties to the dispute about the proceedings.

Solicitor: Representatives of the applicant or respondent and is responsible for acting on behalf of their client in legal proceedings.

Applicant: The person who instituted the claim.

Respondent: The person who was defending the claim.

D) Perception After the Court Visit

A surprising factor after the visit to these courts, was how quickly matters were dealt with on the court roll. I was expecting more action, yet throughout the visit there was limited interaction with the facts of the case, particularly in the County Court which was very formal and procedural, in certain cases there was no presence by the Applicant or Respondent and the solicitor in these cases dealt exclusively with the matter. There was little interaction between the members of the courtroom and the judge scrutinized the papers, there was little evidence or argument given in support or defense of the matter.

Another surprising element was the emphasis on procedure in the courts and of the little discussion of the facts of the cases that took place, most were procedural matters, and the filing of motions and applications. In the Magistrates’ Court, there was similarly very little engagement with the facts of any of the cases and most were quick reviews of pending cases, dealing with bail applications or remands and other administrative matters, all of which were dealt with very quickly and the morning session saw a good number of cases dealt with superficially on matters of procedure.

To a certain extent, the expectation of the court process was that it was going to be very dramatic, however this is clearly not the case as matters moved quickly through the role with minimum discourse on the subject matter and there were no full trials scheduled on the days of my visit. I was further surprised by the proceedings in court to the extent that there are constantly persons coming and going from the courtroom, and to a certain extent this was a more relaxed environment than I was originally expecting. Whereas my original perception that the court environment was going to be very serious, I was surprised to see that the parties in the courtroom were professional and relaxed. There was no hype about the roles that they were playing and they were just getting on with their jobs.


Primary Sources

Constitutional Reform Act 2005

European Convention of Human Rights

Human Rights Act 1998

Secondary Sources

Judiciary of England and Wales (2012) Structure of the Court System [online] Available on: [Accessed 19 November 2012]

Judiciary of England and Wales (2012) County Court [online] Available on: [Accessed 19 November 2012]

Department of Justice (2012) About Courts. [online] Available on: [Accessed 19 November 2012]

UKCLE (2012) The Jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court [online] Available on: [Accessed 19 November 2012]

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