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The Role of the Courts

The Judiciary

The judiciary, which includes judges, is responsible for interpreting the law and ensuring that trials are conducted fairly. They have the authority to make decisions in legal disputes and hold the government accountable for its actions.
The government cannot interfere with the judiciary's role in interpreting the law. If the judges determine that the government's actions are illegal, the government must either change its policies or seek to change the law through Parliament. If a public body is found to be violating someone's legal rights, the judges can order that body to change its practices and provide compensation if necessary.
In addition to their role in upholding the law and resolving legal disputes, judges also make decisions in various civil matters, such as contracts, property, employment rights, and accidents.

Criminal Courts

The court systems in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have some differences when it comes to criminal cases.

Magistrates' and Justice of the Peace Courts

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, minor criminal cases are usually heard in Magistrates' Courts. In Scotland, these cases are dealt with in Justice of the Peace Courts.
Magistrates and Justices of the Peace (JPs) are community members who serve in these courts. In England, Wales, and Scotland, they typically work on a voluntary basis and do not require legal qualifications. They undergo training and are supported by a legal adviser. Magistrates are responsible for determining the verdict in each case and, if the person is found guilty, they decide on the sentence. In Northern Ireland, cases are heard by a District Judge or Deputy District Judge who are legally qualified and remunerated.

Crown Courts and Sheriff Courts

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, serious criminal cases are tried in Crown Courts, presided over by a judge and a jury. In Scotland, serious cases are heard in Sheriff Courts with either a sheriff or a sheriff with a jury. The most severe cases in Scotland, such as murder, are heard in the High Court with a judge and jury. Juries are composed of members of the public selected randomly from the local electoral register. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, a jury consists of 12 members, while in Scotland, a jury comprises 15 members. All individuals summoned for jury service are required to fulfill their duty, unless they are ineligible (e.g., due to a criminal conviction) or can provide a valid reason for exemption, such as ill health.
The jury's role is to listen to the evidence presented during the trial and then determine a verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty" based on the information presented. In Scotland, a third verdict of "not proven" is also possible. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge determines the appropriate penalty.

Youth Courts

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, if a person aged 10 to 17 is accused of a crime, the case is typically heard in a Youth Court. The Youth Court consists of up to three specially trained magistrates or a District Judge. For the most serious cases, the matter may be referred to the Crown Court. It is expected that the parents or carers of the young person attend the hearing. Youth Courts are not open to the public, and the name or photographs of the accused young person cannot be published in newspapers or used by the media.
In Scotland, a system called the Children's Hearings System is used to address offenses committed by children and young people.
Northern Ireland employs a system of youth conferencing to determine how to handle a child who has committed an offense.
The Old Bailey is widely regarded as one of the most renowned criminal courts globally.

County Courts

County Courts handle a wide range of civil disputes. These may involve individuals seeking to recover owed money, cases related to personal injury, family matters, contract breaches, and divorce. In Scotland, most of these matters are addressed in the Sheriff Court. More significant civil cases, such as those involving substantial compensation claims, are handled in the High Court of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, they are addressed in the Court of Session located in Edinburgh.

The Small Claims Procedure

The small claims procedure is an informal way to help people settle minor disputes without the need for extensive time and legal expenses. It is used for claims under £10,000 in England and Wales, and £3,000 in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The hearing takes place in a regular room, with a judge presiding while both sides of the dispute sit around a table. Small claims can also be filed online through Money Claims Online.
You can obtain details about the small claims procedure from your local County Court or Sheriff Court. Information about your local court can be found as follows:


Solicitors are trained lawyers who provide legal advice, take legal action on behalf of their clients, and represent them in court. There are solicitors' offices throughout the UK. It is important to find a solicitor who specializes in the relevant area of law and has the appropriate experience to assist with your case. Many solicitors advertise in local newspapers. You can obtain names of local solicitors and information about their areas of specialization from Citizens Advice. The Law Society in England and Wales, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Law Society of Northern Ireland can also provide this information. Solicitors' fees are typically based on the amount of time spent on a case, so it is important to clarify the expected costs at the outset.

Make Sure You Understand

  • The role of the judiciary: The judiciary is responsible for interpreting the law, ensuring fair trials, and resolving disputes. They are independent of the government and their decisions cannot be interfered with.
  • About the different criminal courts in the UK: In the UK, there are different criminal courts such as Magistrates' and Justice of the Peace Courts for minor offences, Crown Courts and Sheriff Courts for serious offences, and Youth Courts for cases involving young people.
  • About the different civil courts in the UK: The UK has County Courts for various civil disputes, such as personal injury, family matters, and breaches of contract. More serious civil cases are heard in the High Court of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, or the Court of Session in Scotland.
  • How you can settle a small claim: For minor disputes involving claims of less than £10,000 in England and Wales, or £3,000 in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you can use the small claims procedure. This informal process allows you to settle the dispute without extensive time and costs. You can obtain details about the small claims procedure from your local County Court or Sheriff Court.