Structure of Criminal Courts in UK

A great many countries around the world, particularly Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries, based their criminal justice system on UK’s tested and proven system. However, unlike these nations, the current criminal court system in UK is so much more complex as its present structure arrived after an unending series of trial and error over a span of a millennium. There were no comparable system, the Britain had to develop their own.

The statue of Lady Justice on the dome of the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) in London, England. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

  • Court Structure

    This has resulted in a very unique and case specific structure. While all criminal cases will inevitably start in the magistrate’s court, the more serious cases are tasked to the Crown Court. Thereafter, any appeals from the Crown Court will be sent to the High Court, and depending on the outcome, may escalate further up the chain to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. This is further complicated by national jurisdictions, i.e., the Courts of England and Wales, the Courts of Scotland and the Courts of Northern Ireland.

    Although the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 has ensured the separation of powers between the judiciary and legislative branches, all the courts in the United Kingdom falls under the administrative purview of the Ministry of Justice. However, the Courts of England and Wales are directly under the ambit of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service, which is, nevertheless, also under the purview of the Ministry of Justice. We will explore the structure of the individual courts in subsequent pages.

  • Authority of Judges and Appeals

    The complex criminal justice system in the country is also reliant on the English common law system, and as such, judges are granted the authority to interpret law based on their own perspective and experience. However, judges are constrained by any existing precedents.

    Beyond that, a court judgement is comprised of three factors:

    • Facts: The facts of the case as presented, with satisfactory verification
    • Legal position: Also known as ratio, this is the judicial reasoning used to arrive at a decision. Ratios are considered binding precedents in the lower courts.
    • Decision: The decision delivered by the sitting judge

    However, the fallibility of judges is an accepted concept in English common law, and as such, all three aspects can be overturned by a higher court after consideration.

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