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Structure of civil courts, tribunals and criminal courts in England

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Structure of civil and criminal courts, and tribunals. The Civil Procedure Rules and different case tracks.

Criminal and civil court systems in England

The criminal and civil court systems are separate, although some courts hear both criminal and civil matters. Civil cases are essentially about the resolution of disputes between private legal persons (ie individuals) and most housing cases fall into this category. They can involve a public body when acting in a private law capacity. There is a separate procedure for challenging the public law duties of public bodies called 'judicial review'.

Judicial review is part of public or administrative law and consists of an application to the High Court asking the court to review the way a public body has made a decision. Broadly speaking, the court will not decide the merits of the decision, only its lawfulness under public law principles, and the court can ask the authority to reconsider the matter.

In some areas of housing law, legislation has created criminal offences (illegal eviction and some offences related to squatting, for example). Unlike civil cases, a prosecution in a criminal case has to be taken by the police or by certain public bodies, where legislation allows this. For example, local authorities are able to take action against private landlords who have illegally evicted their tenants (see the section on Harassment and illegal eviction for more information).

A private criminal prosecution can be brought in certain cases, such as where there is a statutory nuisance,[1] or where a private landlord fails to provide information relating to service charges.[2] There is a different test of proof in civil and criminal cases. Civil cases have to be proved 'on the balance of probabilities' while criminal cases have to be proved 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

Civil Procedure Rules

The Civil Procedure Rules apply to both the High Court and the County Court. They aim to ensure that the High Court and the County Court operate the same procedures using the same forms. The overriding objective of the rules is to enable the court to deal with cases justly.[3]

The rules are closely linked to 'practice directions', which expand and explain the rules. Practice directions sometimes tell parties and their representatives what the court will expect of them and what they can expect from the court. Practice directions were published with the Civil Procedure Rules and supersede all previous practice directions, both local and national. Both the rules themselves and the practice directions that expand them refer to forms. Copies of new or amended forms required to operate the system have been published with the rules and practice directions.

The Civil Procedure Rules can be downloaded from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service.

Tribunals

Tribunals operate in specialist areas of the law, generally dealing with appeals processes.

In November 2008 all individual tribunals were brought together under a two-tier system consisting of the First-tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal. The two-tier system is administered by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service and each tier has its own set of rules. Each tier is split into different chambers with specific jurisdictions; each chamber operates under specific rules.[4]

From 1 July 2013 all the individual tribunals relating to housing sit under the jurisdiction of the Property Chamber.[5] The Property Chamber deals with all matters relating to:

  • housing (formerly under Residential Property Tribunal)
  • leasehold property (formerly under Leasehold Valuation Tribunal)
  • residential property (formerly under Residential Property Tribunal)
  • applications or appeals to the Land Registry (formerly under Adjudicator to HM Land Registry)
  • rents (formerly under Rents Tribunals and Rent Assessment Committees)
  • right to buy (formerly under Residential Property Tribunal)
  • mobile homes (formerly under Residential Property Tribunal)
  • agricultural land (formerly under Agricultural Land Tribunal).

Appeals against decisions made in the First-tier Tribunal are heard in the Upper Tribunal. Appeals from the Property Chamber are dealt with in the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal.[6]

As an alternative to appeal, the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) may review its own decision where:[7]

  • an obvious error of law has occurred, for example a factual conclusion was reached with no supporting evidence
  • reviewing a decision allows for avoiding an unnecessary appeal to the Upper Tribunal
  • the review relates to a decision 'on the matter' which, if set aside, must be either decided again by the First-tier Tribunal or referred to the Upper Tribunal.

An Upper Tribunal decision may be appealed to the Court of Appeal, but the grounds of appeal must relate to a point of law.

Appeals against Upper Tribunal's decisions on a point of law of general importance may exceptionally be made direct to the Supreme Court. These appeals are called leapfrog appeals and are permitted only if the relevant statutory conditions[8] are satisfied, the Upper Tribunal grants a certificate on application of one of the parties in the proceedings, and the Supreme Court grants permission.[9]

Civil proceedings

The hierarchy of the civil courts is as follows:

  • County Court (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.

County Court

The County Courts deal with the majority of cases in the civil court system. Enforcement Agents 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. District judges can hear 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.

County Court or High Court?

Civil proceedings can be brought in either the County Court or the High Court. The general rule is that cases in which the value of the claim does not exceed £100,000 must be started in the County Court.[10]

The majority of housing cases (with a few notable exceptions – see The High Court, below) will be brought in the County Court.

In some cases, both the High Court and the County Court will have jurisdiction to deal with the case and in this situation the client will have a choice as to the court in which s/he wishes to commence proceedings.[11]

The High Court and the County Court have powers to transfer cases from one court to another, as appropriate.[12]

The High Court

The High Court deals with the most difficult and complicated civil cases. A client whose case must be commenced in the High Court should be referred to a specialist adviser because the rules on representation in the High Court allow only those representatives with higher rights of audience to represent a client in the High Court.

As a general rule, a case may not be started in the High Court unless the value of the claim exceeds £100,000. If the value of the claim exceeds this amount, the client has a choice as to whether to start proceedings in the High Court. However, there are some cases, such as applications for judicial review or high value possession claims, which can only be heard in the High Court. Additionally, cases that include a claim for damages for personal injury in which the value of the claim exceeds £50,000 must be commenced in the High Court.[13]

Where a case can only be started in the High Court, the client will not have a choice as to the court in which to start proceedings.

Starting proceedings in the High Court

Where the claimant has the choice of starting proceedings in either the High Court or the County Court, then a claim should be started in the High Court if the claimant believes that the claim should be dealt with by a High Court judge because of:

  • the financial value of the claim and the amount in dispute and/or
  • the complexity of the facts, legal issues, remedies or procedures involved and/or
  • the importance of the outcome of the claim to the public in general.[14]

The County Court

The County Court deals with civil matters, including all money claims of up to £100,000. Under the track system (see the section on Preparing for court for information), claims of a value of up to £10,000 or £1,000 in disrepair cases are normally allocated to the small claims track in the County Court.[15]

Cases are not automatically referred to the small claims track but are allocated by the district judge (see the section on County court personnel) on the basis of their value and complexity.

There is a single national County Court for England and Wales.[16] The historic geographical jurisdictional boundaries of the County Courts were removed in 2014. Claims that are not issued online can be started at any County Court office and will be sent to the appropriate hearing centre by that office. The address of the property (or of the defendant when it is not a claim for property or land) will determine the appropriate County Court hearing centre for the claim.[17]

How cases are allocated to particular 'tracks', usually depending on their value.

Money cases claiming less than £100,000 (or £50,000 in personal injury cases) must be started in the County Court. Most residential possession cases must be brought in the County Court. Certain other cases, for example judicial review, must be brought in the High Court, which is also used for cases of particularly high value. In certain circumstances, cases can be transferred between the County Court and the High Court.[18]

Under the Civil Procedure Rules, cases commenced in the County Court are allocated to a particular 'track' on the basis of their value and complexity.

The 'small claims track' can deal with claims up to £10,000, but there are exceptions to this. Personal injury claims worth more than £1,000 cannot be allocated to the small claims track. Neither can disrepair claims involving a claim for works to be carried out where either the cost of the works or the value of the damages is more than £1,000. Claims for injunctions or damages for harassment or unlawful eviction can never be allocated to the small claims track.[19] Possession claims will rarely be allocated to the small claims track and then only if all parties agree.

Cases with a value between £10,000 and £25,000 will generally be allocated to the 'fast track'.[20]

More complex claims with a value over £25,000 will usually be allocated to the 'multi-track'. If the trial is likely to last more than a day the case will probably be allocated to the multi-track even if the value is less than £25,000.[21]

Fast track cases follow a standard procedure with a trial window fixed at the date of allocation. The time between directions and the start of the trial is meant to be no more than 30 weeks.

Multi-track cases follow a more tailor-made procedure, which allows the court to use a variety of case management tools depending on a particular claim, and may take longer to come to court.[22]

See the section on Preparing for court for more information about how cases are managed and allocation to a particular track.

[1] s.82 Environmental Protection Act 1990.

[2] s.25 Landlord and Tenant Act 1985.

[3] Civil Procedure Rules, rule 1.1.

[4] Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Property Chamber) Rules 2013 SI 2013/1169.

[5] First-Tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal (Chambers) (Amendment) Order 2013 SI 2013/1187.

[6] Tribunal Procedure (Amendment No. 3) Rules 2013 SI 2013/1188.

[7] s.9 Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007; rule 55, Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Property Chamber) Rules 2013 SI 2013/1169; R (RB) v First-tier Tribunal (Review) [2010] UKUT 160 (AAC); Point West Gr Ltd v Bassi and Ors [2020] EWCA Civ 795.

[8] s.14A(4) and 14A(5) Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007.

[9] ss.14A to 14C Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007; Supreme Court PD 1, para 1.2.17; Secretary of State for Work and Pensions v DL and another (HB) [2018] UKUT 355 (AAC).

[10] Civil Procedure Rules, Practice Direction 7A.2.1.

[11] Civil Procedure Rules, Practice Direction 7A.1.

[12] Civil Procedure Rules, Part 30.

[13] Civil Procedure Rules, Practice Direction 7A.2.2.

[14] Civil Procedure Rules, Practice Direction 7A.2.4.

[15] Civil Procedure Rules, Part 27.

[16] s.17 and Sch.9 Crime and Courts Act 2013; Crime and Courts Act 2013 (Commencement No. 10 and Transitional Provision) Order 2014 SI 2014/954.

[17] Civil Procedure Rules, rule 56.2.

[18] ss. 40-42 County Courts Act 1984; see also Civil Procedure Rules, Part 30.

[19] Civil Procedure Rules, Parts 26.6(1)-(3) and 27

[20] Civil Procedure Rules, Parts 26.6(4)-(5) and 28.

[21] Civil Procedure Rules, Parts 26.6(6) and 29.

[22] Civil Procedure Rules, Part 29.

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