BUSINESS LAW (LAW 111)
Court System 2
Number of words used in the assignment: 2103
This assignment is based upon two court visits, one to a criminal (Magistrate’s court of Sunderland) and one to a civil (County court of Newcastle) court. The assignment is apparently significant in terms of its relevance to the general study and understanding of the underlying principles and theoretical concepts of the English legal system and the environment in which it operates, and in terms of formation of argumentative opinion on the English court system. The objectives of this assignment are:
· To outline and compare the roles and functions of the particular courts visited in respect to their jurisdictional areas, i.e. cases they handle.
· An attempt is made by the writer to outline, as clearly as possible, the position of the courts visited within the English court hierarchy, and, consequently, comment upon how they interact with other courts in the structure.
· Various roles performed by legal personnel, who were present during the visits, are identified and explained in the order of their hierarchical position.
· Last but not least, some comments will be provided upon personal opinion of the writer held prior to the court visits, and the one formed subsequently.
However, due to prearranged and fixed time constraints, and in order to avoid exceeding the word limit of this assignment, major emphasis is being put on Magistrate’s and County courts, and the legal personnel who were present in these two during the visits. Other courts will be mentioned in terms of their relevance to these two.
First and foremost, it has to be mentioned that magistrates’ courts, or justices of peace as they are also known, deal mostly with disputes between the state and its citizens, i.e. with breaches of law that affect the general public. Their aim, and, thus, any other criminal court’s aim, is to provide punishment to those who have breached any law that is accepted as a rule by the society, i.e. anybody opposing the majority’s view. According to surveys they deal with more than 95 per cent of all criminal cases.
The general types of cases that can be tried by magistrates are either summary, i.e. without a jury, or either-way offences, i.e. with the presence of a jury, if the defendant wishes so. Even if a case is too serious to be dealt with by a magistrate’s court, it still has to undergo its committal proceedings prior to reaching a higher court, to determine whether it is worth a trial in a higher court at all. Committal proceedings are held where there is an either-way or an indictable offence, in order to assist the magistrates decide whether there is a prima facie case, i.e. it must be tried in a higher court, or not. Defendants may only use written evidence during committal proceedings.
It is also immensely important to mention that the prosecution's task in any criminal case is to establish a person's guilt beyond any reasonable doubt, that happening due to potential severe implications following one’s conviction, e.g. public humiliation, loss of job and/or liberty and moral suffering caused, to name but few. Magistrates can penalize financially, imprison, order community service or probation, or discharge a litigant either conditionally or absolutely. They can also issue summonses, warrants of arrest and search, and grant bail to people awaiting trial. Furthermore, in order to avoid the situation where the victim of an offender has to sue the offender in a civil court, magistrates’ courts can impose compensation issues with a limit of £5,000. In case of sequential summary offences, no matter how many a person is found guilty of at one hearing, the heaviest forms of punishment that a justice of peace can impose are a financial penalty of up to £5,000 and/or a six months imprisonment. The imprisonment, however, can be extended up to twelve months in case of an either-way offence. A higher court may take over an offender’s prosecution where magistrates assume that their sentencing powers are not enough to deal with the offender concerned.
Magistrate’s courts’ jurisdiction is not limited to criminal cases solely. The justices of peace have also the power to make personal protection orders and exclusion orders in cases of matrimonial violence (under the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1978). Their civil jurisdiction also includes, among several domestic matters, adoption proceedings, applications for residence, and contact orders and maintenance relating to spouses and children (under the Children Act 1989). While magistrates’ courts deal with family related matters they are termed a ‘family proceedings court’. Moreover, they have the power to enforce charges for water, gas and electricity. They can also function as licensing courts where they can grant, renew or revoke licenses for selling liquor, betting or operating taxi service.
The essential points to be mentioned in order to highlight the differences between the magistrates’ courts’ criminal and county courts’ civil jurisdictions are that: a) civil law involves dispute resolution between individuals and, thus, it is up to the individual concerned to bring an action into the court, while State’s role is to provide the courts and the necessary legislation which will help the resolution process. Cases brought in civil courts are usually referred to by the names of the parties involved, e.g. John v Mary, whereas cases brought before a criminal court are referred to by the initials ‘R’, for State, and the party who breached the law, i.e. R v John (Regina in Latin for ‘Queen’). The initial letter ‘v’ is said as ‘and’ in verbal speech, and not ‘versus’, as many would assume; b) the purpose of civil law and, therefore, every civil court’s, is to make the defendant, if s/he is found liable, compensate the party that claims to have been injured, or suffered, due to their negligence, i.e. the plaintiff. An alternative to compensation is an injunction order made by a civil court, which says either to do something or not; c) the plaintiff/claimant must prove his case on the balance of probabilities, which means that if a defendant has been acquitted in a criminal court s/he may be found liable in a civil court for the same action;
Nowadays, most of the civil cases are heard in the county courts. Indeed, after the Woolf’s reform on the jurisdiction of civil courts, county courts hear more cases than they used to, for it is said that prices of a case brought to a county court have decreased significantly, though they still remain relevantly high, and the process is faster and less formal in relation to the High Court. Usually damages, i.e. financial compensation, along with the costs of legal representation of the winning party, are paid by the other party involved. However, this is not the case for actions where the amount involved is below £5,000 and, for this reason it is highly suggested by legal practitioners to seek alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration.
The usual aspects of civil law that can be tried in the county courts are as follow:
· Actions in contract and tort. There is no financial limit in such actions;
· Actions relating to property, e.g. recovery of land, titles, or rights over land. Only where the capital value or the interest in land involved is £30,000, or less;
· Proceedings involving mortgages and trusts for £30,000, or less;
· Bankruptcies. There are no financial limits but not all county courts have this jurisdiction;
· Company winding-ups for £120,000, or less, though again bankruptcy jurisdiction is essential;
· Actions involving a person’s will for £30,000, or less;
· Family matters. Divorce jurisdiction is essential;
· Actions involving consumer credit, landlord and tenant and racial discrimination cases;
· Actions involving Patents (under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988);
Magistrates’ Courts are in the lowest position of English Criminal courts hierarchy, and County Courts are in the lowest position of English Civil courts hierarchy. They are bound to follow previous decisions of courts above them in the structure and, in particular, those taken by the Crown Court (for Magistrates’ Courts) and High Court (for County Courts), Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. They are not bound by their own decisions, though they may be born in mind for future cases even in higher courts. This system is known as the doctrine of judicial precedent. All English courts are bound by decisions of the European Court, although it does not operate on the doctrine of judicial precedent. For it is extremely rare for two different cases to be identical, as far as facts are concerned, judges may take different decisions to those formed previously in a higher court for similar cases. Magistrates’ and County courts can also interact with other courts above them in the structure by means of appealing.
The defendant, or the prosecution, in a criminal case is allowed to appeal in the Crown Court if they believe that the decision taken in the lower court is either wrong or excessively severe. The defendant can only object either on some points of law or an action that they believe was beyond the lower court’s jurisdiction. What has a great impact on the procedure of appealing is whether a case was tried with a jury or not. Under the Access to Justice Act 1999, many appeals from County Courts are now made to a single judge of the High Court, and not directly to the Court of Appeal as hitherto. When an appeal takes place it is more like a rehearing of the case rather than a totally new hearing. Usually, when the appeal is from a county court to the High Court, new evidence is forbidden.
Magistrates’ Courts are usually staffed by lay magistrates who are ordinary people without legal qualification, work on a part-time basis without being paid and, on most occasions, three of them sit together to hear a case. There are, however, some full-time stipendiary magistrates who are paid for their services. The decision lies in the hands of the magistrates as to how severe the punishment is going to be, after they find the offender guilty of the accusations against them. During the visit there were three magistrates, a clerk, two solicitors, both for defense and for prosecution, and a court usher.
The justice that was sitting in the middle was referred to as the ‘chairman’. Their role, in general, was to pay attention to the presentation of the facts, first by the solicitor who was representing the defendant and, afterwards, by the prosecution. Before taking their final decision the chairman asked a few questions the defendant in order to clarify some statements made during the presentation of the facts. However, their ultimate decision was taken after the clerk’s advice and some minutes of personal view exchange among all three magistrates. Clerk’s roles, except the one mentioned above, included: naming the defendant that was to be prosecuted next when one case was over and to order the relevant to case court paper to be brought into the court room. The court usher’s role was to ensure the smoothness of court paper procedures as well as to carry out the needs and demands of the clerk. He had also been announcing on the microphone who was to enter the court next, e.g. witnesses, according to the row of events. Solicitors could address the magistrates when presenting the information relevant to the case concerned or the defendant, either to clarify or to present new facts.
During the visit to the County Court there were one district judge, one court usher and two solicitors. Their roles were quite similar to those performed by their colleagues in the criminal court with the difference of the court usher’s role, who had a much more formal role than that of the person under the same title in the criminal court.
To sum up, it is quite apparent that writer’s knowledge on the subject after the research undertaken has broadened up to an immense extent. The fact is that there was no particular opinion held on the English legal system due to the writer’s foreign origins, especially prior to the court visits. However, comparing to some knowledge gained through films and the news it became more evident that the more one learns about a subject the more s/he becomes aware of the fact that there is plenty of information left untouched, still to cover. Eventually, it has to be mentioned that the English court system may seem complex to someone unfamiliar with this subject, however, it becomes much easier to grasp the theories and concepts surrounding this subject, especially after the study that the writer has conducted in this assignment.
1. Kelly D., Business Law, 2nd, Cavendish, 2002
2. Keenan D., Business Law, 6th, Longman, 2002
3. Marsh S. B., Business Law, 8th, Nelson Thornes, 2002
 Keenan D., (1998), Business Law, 5th, Longman
 Kelly D., (2002), Business Law, 2nd, Cavendish