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This essay will assess the hierarchical structure of the court and tribunal system in England and Wales. This essay will present a description of the principal courts, civil, criminal and tribunal system.
The English court system is pyramidal and has separate courts for civil and criminals cases and further separation to deal with different kinds of cases, based on the claim value, point of law and other degree of complexity.
This essay will explore the courts functions and appeal structure in order to examine the rationale behind the mechanism to resolve business disputes.
The hierarchical structure of the civil courts is arranged in a manner where if the civil dispute reaches litigation, it will be in the county court or the High Court. Appeal from the decision of the former will go the High Court. Appeal from the High Court will go to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court. The appeals are allowed when there is a point of law of public importance; clarification of a point of law; or real prospect of success.
There is a single National County Court. The County Court has wide jurisdiction to hear business disputes arising from breach of contract or claim in tort. The County Court hears all equity disputes, including wills, trusts or mortgages below £350,000. It also hears claims less than £100,000, and if the value crosses this limit, the High Court hears the claim. In case of personal injuries cases, it hears claims less than £50,000, and if the value crosses this limit, the High Court will hears the claim. Also, there are nominated County Court judges who can issue injunctions in the form of freezing orders to prevent a person from moving assets out of jurisdiction of the English courts.
At the county court level, there is a hierarchy where there are the district judges at the lowest level and above them, the circuit judges. The former hears uncontested cases, mortgage repossessions and cases allocated to small claims track. The latter hear more complex claims with amount above £25,000. If the amount is between £10,000 and £25000, the case may be heard by either of them.
There are cases where the claims involving a large sum to money with possibility of going to the High Court would be presumed to go to the High Court. However, the case will go to High Court if the claimant has the belief that based on the size of the amount, the High Court must hear the case; that the complexity of the case requires the High Court to hear it; or that the outcome of the case is of importance to the public. The last reason reflects that decision of the High Court will create judicial precedents and that of the county court cannot.
Reading the way the claims and their values are categorised to be heard by the county courts, it could be inferred that there are two main driving factors that determines cases to be heard in these court. One is the value of the claim, which is different for different cases. Such differentiation seems to be based on the second factor, which is complexity of determination of applicable laws. This is reflected in the way if a personal injuries claim cross £50,000, they go the High Court. This value is very less that the equity disputes and other civil claims. However, the possible complexity in determination of facts and identification of applicable laws may be the factors determining the appeal.
In matters involving appeal, cases from the district judges go to circuit judge and then to the High Court and in exceptional cases, they may go to the Court of Appeal instead of the High Court where the appeal is a second appeal, the decision is final on a multi track cases; or possibility of appeal to the Court of Appeal. In this case, the court system indicates that both the High Court and the County Court are on the same level of authority (or the lack of it) to deal the case.
The High Court comprises the Chancery (equity), Family (for family matters) and Queen’s Bench (common law disputes) divisions. This allocation is not rigid and they can transfer case to one another. The Family division concerns family matters and has little interest in business context. The Chancery division, with two specialist courts, the Bankruptcy and Companies Court and the Patents Court, concerns equity matters, including mortgages, bankruptcy, wills, trust, partnership law, company law and all kinds of property and taxation disputes. The QB’s divisional court, with its four specialist courts, the Divisional Court, the Admiralty Court, the Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court, has its respective procedures. In these divisions, the level of formalities in procedures is different. For example, the Commercial Court, a special court of the Queen’s Bench, has its specialist procedures, which are less formal than specialist matters in the Technology and Construction Court covering building work or other cases involving complex technical question of fact.
The High Court hears civil and criminal case appeals from the County and Family courts and from Magistrates’ court and Crown Court (criminal case). The Queen’s Bench covers cases involving statutes that impose criminal liability on business. The divisional courts also hear cases from tribunals. The QB’ Divisional Court also hear cases from the Crown Court if the case was originally tried in the magistrates’ court. Cases go to the Court of Appeal if there is an important principle of law or procedure, or there is a compelling reason. The Court of Appeal or the High Court can also reopen proceeding in order to avoid real injustice; address exceptional circumstances; and address absence of alternative effective remedy. Appeal applications are heard by the Court of Appeal to refer to the Supreme Court. In all appeal cases, decisions of the lower courts are reversed when they are wrong or unjust because of procedural irregularity.
In consideration of the civil court structure, the entry point of civil cases is not based on a uniform standard yardstick. The cap on value of equity disputes, other civil claims and personal injuries cases are not the same. On the face of it, it looks as such the lower courts are allocated cases that are straightforward and there is absence of any question of facts in regard to a principle of law. Thus, it could be that the complexity of the case and the potential larger implication of the outcome determine the court that could hear the case. For example, the High Court will hear the case if outcome of the case is of importance to the public or the case is complex. Complexity seems to apply to cases where there are important legal issues or there are stricter formal procedures, as seen Commercial Court that has less formal specialist procedures.
It is not understandable when the circuit judges of the County Court could hear complex cases too. This means there are complex cases that come to the County Court as per the qualification of allocation of cases. This indicates a gap in the manner of allocation. Problem is that the County Courts are not given enough credibility to hear such cases and could quality to establish precedents. This could be derived from the fact that appeal cases from the circuit judges of the County Court may go to the Court of Appeal skipping the level of the High Court.
The Crown court tries the most serious offences, including murder. The magistrates’ court handles the minor offences, such as motoring offences. There is the third set of offences, such as theft that are either tried at the magistrates’ court or the Crown court. The magistrates determine in this respect. They may choose summary trial unless the offence is serious that the sentence that could be passed by the magistrates may not be proportionate to the seriousness. There is another situation where a sentence passed by the magistrate could be increased by the Crown court.
The QB Divisional Court hears appeal from the magistrates in case of point of law or scope of powers. The Court of Appeal hears appeal from the QB Divisional Court in case of unsatisfactory and unsafe jury’s verdict; decision as to point of law; or material irregularity in trial. This court can order greater sentence. The Supreme Court hears appeal from the Court of Appeal and the QB Divisional Court on point of law of public importance. The appeal is subject to permission by the two courts.
This may represent an overlap of trial as between the magistrates and the Crown courts. The magistrates must at first instance determine the seriousness qualified enough for the Crown court to conduct the trial. The possibility of increase sentence by the Crown court also presents an uncertainty possible faced by the accused.
If there an appeal against conviction where the accused pleaded not guilty, the Crown court hears the case again. It could be on the facts or law. If the appeal is against sentence, the Crown court may conduct a complete rehearing of the case. In case of point of l aw, the Divisional court can hear the case. The hierarchical does not seem to hold much value. The magistrates and the Crown court look to function as one office, as it is with the circuit judges and the district judges of the County court. In this light, it might be administratively convenient to function as one court.
There is a separate system of the tribunals for dealing with cases and appeals. The tribunals have members who have expertise in a particular area of law. For example, the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) will have members nominated by trade union and employer’s association. This aims to make the tribunal independent from government representation. The appointment of lay members of the employment tribunal is a result of a Human Rights Act challenge in Scanfuture Ltd.The aim is to comply with principles of fair trial.
EAT and other tribunals follow informal proceedings. This may be an advantage as parties can express themselves. It may be a disadvantage as it may lack the standard of justice in court proceeding. However, it follows concerned statute.
An employment tribunal hears claim based on employment statute, common law case for breach of employment contract. The appeal goes to EAT, which has a High court judge or a Court of Appeal judge as the president and the Court of Appeal. Decision of EAT is binding on employment tribunals, attaining a similar status as the High court decisions. As employment law has element of EU law, a case can be referred to ECJ for its opinion.
As could be observed the English court system follows a hierarchical or the pyramidal court structure order. It has separate routes for civil and criminal matters. It is further divided into separate courts created to hear specific issues.
This is unlike the US system that follows a federal system but more unified in structure. For example, Florida has the country courts, the circuit courts, the district courts of appeal and the supreme court. The Texas structure has further classification at the lower court level where the county levels could see five separate courts to deal with civil and criminal cases. However, the US, unlike the UK, does not have separate courts for criminal and civil cases.
The hierarchical or the pyramidal court is to ensure a finality of the judgment. The doctrine of ‘stare decisis’ or judicial precedent treats like cases alike and the higher courts’ decisions are binding on lower courts. A court is usually bound by decision of a court of equal standing or of higher authority. However, the Supreme Court allows flexibility to meet new social demands. As example could be with relation to ECtHR, which is a part of the UK court jurisprudence. Superior courts can alter previous precedents generated without reference to ECHR. For example, in Miliangos v George Frank (Textiles) Ltd, where the Supreme Court exercise its own discretion to rule that the English court did not need to award damages in sterling. However, it has not allowed its inferior court, for example the Court of Appeal, to deviate from precedents. For example in the case of Broome v Cassell where the Supreme Court reasserted its decisions are binding. Deviation is however allowed in case of its previous decision.
In terms of the inferior courts (county courts, Crown court, magistrates’ courts), they are bound by the courts above but not by their own earlier decisions or by each other. The pyramidal approach is seen in the way the High court is bound by decisions of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal and by their own decision. However, when it comes to lower court or a court with apparent lower authority, there is some gap. Decisions of divisional courts are binding on single judge, but decisions of the single judges are not binding on fellow judges when sitting alone. This arrangement does not cover the situation where a single judge may decide on a point of law, which should have been given a binding effect on other judges or courts of equal standing. Similar discredit is attached to the ability of the circuit judges in County court to deal complex cases does not enable its decision to have binding effect on district judges.
The English system is a pyramidal, hierarchical structure based on the authority, claim value, complexity, point of law and public interest. However, there seems to be a complex set op of separate courts and jurisdictions, which may lead to overlapping exercise of jurisdiction, uncertainty as to the final sentence or verdict and rigidity as to confining abidingness to decision of the most superior courts. This route of justice and appeal system looks expensive and confining final decision making power to the superior court, creating multiple opportunities of appeal. This is because the basis of the hierarchical may not seem appropriate given the complex and multiple set of jurisdictions established.
Cassell and Co Ltd v Broome (No 2) HL  AC 1136).
Miliangos v George Frank Ltd,  AC 443.
Scanfuture Ltd v State for Trade and Industry  ICR 1096.
Neubauer D, America's Courts and the Criminal Justice System (Cengage Learning 2007) 88-89.
Maclyntre E, Business Law (Pearson Education Limited 2018).
Slapper G and David Kelly, Q&A English Legal System 2011-2012 (Taylor & Francis 2013) 87.
Courts and Tribunal Judiciary ‘Structure of the courts & tribunal system’ accessed on 11 November 2020
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