Exploring the Constitution
How are the civil courts set out?
There are different systems for criminal cases and civil cases but only civil cases have constitutional importance and so only the civil system is set out here. The system of courts is:-
The High Court in England and Wales, the Outer House of the Court of Session in Scotland and the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland hear cases in the first instance and give a ruling.
The Court of Appeal in England and Wales, the Inner House of the Court of Session in Scotland and the Court of Appeal of the Court of Judicature in Northern Ireland can hear cases brought to them on appeal by the losing side in the High Courts and Outer House and reach a decision.
The Supreme Court is the highest court and hears cases sent to it from the lower courts in all parts of the UK. It is decision is final except in those cases that could come within the remit of the European Court.
The European Court of Justice enforces the treaties of the European Union and the European Communities Act 1972, made European Community law superior to British law and so its decisions are binding on the UK courts. Most of its cases are as a result of submissions made by judges in national courts seeking clarification on a point of European law although governments, EU institutions and firms also submit cases. Its decisions mainly relate to economic areas, such as competition law, and not constitutional issues, although, since the Lisbon Treaty, issues related to gender equality and the rights of minorities have come before it.
The European Court of Human Rights is an international and not an EU court. It was set up in 1959 and decides cases on the basis of the European Convention of Human Rights drawn up by Western European countries, after the Second World War, in reaction to the infringement of liberties carried out by the Nazis before and during the war.
Individuals can bring a case against their national or local governments arguing that its decision has breached the Convention. British Governments changed legislation to take account of ECHR judgements and then, in 1998, the Human Rights Act incorporated the Convention into British Law. Acts of Parliament now have to have a declaration that they are compatible with the Human Rights Act and the courts will apply the Convention and declare if other legislation is incompatible with it.
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal in a few specialised areas such as church law.