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Court structure and hierarchy

This content applies to England & Wales

The structure of the civil courts and the criminal courts.

Civil proceedings

The hierarchy of the civil courts is as follows:

  • county courts (or, in certain cases, magistrates' courts)
  • High Court
  • Court of Appeal (civil division)
  • Supreme Court.

Under the Civil Procedure Rules, cases are allocated to a particular 'track' towards the start of the case, generally on the basis of their value and complexity. See the section on Which civil court for more information.

County courts

The county courts deal with the majority of cases in the civil court system. Bailiffs are attached to each court to enforce orders and collect money. Cases are heard by either a deputy district judge, district judge or a circuit judge. Circuit judges are senior judges who have a wider jurisdiction than district judges.

District judges can hear any cases allocated to the small claims track or the fast track, as well as some multi-track cases, including possession claims.

Magistrates' courts

Although they mainly handle criminal cases, magistrates' courts deal with certain civil matters including some family cases and non-payment of council tax. Appeals are to the Crown Court or by way of 'case stated' (similar to judicial review) to the High Court. For more information see Criminal proceedings below.

High Court

The High Court is made up of three divisions: Chancery, Queen's Bench and Family. 

The Chancery Division hears matters relating to the estates of the deceased, bankruptcy, copyright, guardians, sale of land, mortgages, partnerships, patents, registered designs and trademarks. 

Queen's Bench hears matters relating to 'habeas corpus' (violation of personal liberty), judicial review and ordinary civil disputes such as contractual claims. It also hears cases that cannot be tried in the county court, for example higher value possession or personal injury claims. There is an overlap between these two divisions, with some cases not being specifically assigned to Chancery or Queen's Bench. 

The Family Division hears matters including wardship, guardianship, adoption, matrimonial actions and non-contentious probate actions.

All cases are heard either at the Royal Courts of Justice in London or at one of the High Court District Registries in England and Wales. Probate Registries, which confirm the validity of a deceased person's will and appoint executors to administer the estate, are located around the country and are part of the Family Division of the High Court. Cases in the High Court are generally heard by one judge. Juries only sit in libel cases and actions against the police. Some appeals from the county court are to the High Court, mainly appeals from hearings during the case ('interlocutory hearings') rather than trials.

Court of Appeal (civil division)

The Court of Appeal hears appeals against decisions made in a county court or in the High Court. Cases are heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. There are usually three judges at the hearing. Permission is necessary for an appeal in almost all cases. For most cases, permission can be granted by the court whose decision is being appealed. Permission can also be granted by the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal will only grant permission to appeal if certain criteria are met.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final appeal court, which hears appeals on 'points of law' (issues of general public importance) in both criminal and civil cases. Cases are normally heard by five law lords (Lords of Appeal in Ordinary) although this number may vary.

The House of Lords had been the final court of appeal until 31 July 2009. 

Criminal proceedings

The hierarchy of the criminal courts is as follows:

  • Magistrates' courts
  • Crown Court
  • Court of Appeal – criminal division
  • House of Lords.

Magistrates' courts

These handle 98% of criminal work, but also deal with a small number of civil matters (see above). Cases are heard either by a bench of three lay magistrates (justices of the peace) or by a qualified judge known as a district judge.

Crown Court

The Crown Court is based at over 70 centres across England and Wales and deals with serious criminal cases such as murder, rape or robbery. The Crown Court hears appeals from magistrates' courts and also deals with sentencing for cases from magistrates' courts.

Court of Appeal (criminal division)

The Court of Appeal hears appeals against convictions and sentences made by the Crown Court. Appeals from the magistrates' court by 'case stated' are to the High Court. This is a form of judicial review. The High Court's judgment may then be appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final appeal court. The House of Lords was the final appeal court until 31 July 2009.

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