The structure of the court system in Britain is many-layered and almost incomprehensible. There is no comprehensive law regulating the organization and competence of the courts. The legal system for England and Wales (there are separate ones for Scotland and Northern Ireland) does not have a criminal or civil code. It is founded upon two basic elements: Acts of Parliament or statute law, and common law which is the outcome of past decisions and practices based upon custom and reason.
The courts of Britain are divided into two large groups: criminal courts and civil courts. Besides, there are many special tribunals, for example, industrial tribunals dealing with labour disputes and industrial injury compensation.
CRIMINAL COURTS are magistrates' courts and Crown courts. Magistrates' courts are courts of first instance. They deal with about 95 per cent of criminal cases. There are about 700 magistrates' courts in England and Wales. They are served by approximately 28,000 unpaid or 'lay' magistrates or Justices of the Peace (JPs), who have been dealing with minor crimes for over 600 years. JPs are ordinary citizens chosen from the community. A court normally consists of three lay magistrates who are advised on points of law by a legally qualified clerk. They may not impose a sentence of more than twelve months imprisonment or a fine of more than 5,000 pounds, and may refer cases requiring a heavier penalty to the Crown court. A Crown court is presided over by a judge, but the verdict is reached by a jury of twelve citizens, randomly selected from the local electoral rolls. Crown courts try serious cases such as murder, rape, armed robbery, fraud and so on. A person convicted in a magistrates' court may appeal against its decision to the Crown court.
CIVIL COURTS include county courts as courts of first instance and the High Court as a higher court. Briefly, the High Court has: the Chancery Division, dealing with company law, bankruptcy and the administration estates of those who have died; the Family Division, concerned with family law, divorce, custody of children, etc.; and the Queen's Bench Division, considering appeals from lower criminal courts, as well as civil matters.
Appeals against decisions of the High Court and the Crown court may be taken to the Court of Appeal with its Criminal and Civil Divisions.
The highest court of the country is the House of Lords, which will consider a case referred from the Court of Appeal where a point of general public importance seems to be at stake. In practice, the Lords are represented by five or more of the thirteen Law Lords. Their decisions on both criminal and civil matters bind all other courts.
Questions on the topic:
1. How can one describe the court system of the UK? 2. What is the court system based on? 3. What groups are the courts divided? 4. What courts belong to the group of criminal ones? 5. What courts are courts of first instance? 6. How many cases do they try? 7. How many magistrates' courts are there in England and Wales? 8. How many Justices of the Peace work in them? 9.What sentences may magistrates impose? 10. How is the verdict reached in the Crown court? 11. Who may work as a juror? 12. What cases are tried by a Crown court? 13. What courts are called civil? 14. What divisions does the High Court consist of? 15. What cases does each of the divisions examine? 16. What can you say about the Court of Appeal? 17. What is the highest court of the country?
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