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United Kingdom (UK) - Legal System

In the United Kingdom there are three systems of law: English, English and Welsh, and Northern Irish. Scots law, applicable in Scotland, is considered a pluralistic system. This means it is based on civil law with common elements from the High Middle Ages. Northern Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland do diverge on certain rules of common law and equity, however there are also laws that apply to the entire nation.

The reason there is no unity of legal system ensuring that each country is under UK law is due to Article 19 in the Treaty of Union, which came into effect under the Acts of Union in 1707, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The treaty ensured that Scotland, Northern Ireland and, to a degree, Wales would have a separate legal system from England.

How the Supreme Court Works

The main difference between all four countries is in the civil law section. The Supreme Court of the UK is the highest court for all matters involving civil and criminal cases. Only Scots law is a separate civil law. Despite the United States’ usage of a supreme court for many years, this is a new concept in the United Kingdom which was only established in 2009. It replaced the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.

Today England and Wales are under the Senior Courts of England and Wales for the Court of Appeal, Crown Court, and High Court of Justice. For Northern Ireland the pattern is the same in terms of civil and criminal cases and the three levels of court.

For Scotland there are the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary, which are civil and criminal courts respectively.

British Overseas Territories

Since British holdings are vast, there are also court systems in place for all territories and dependencies under British rule. These include the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and Special Immigration Appeals Commission. For Great Britain and Northern Ireland there is also an Employment Tribunal and an Appeal Tribunal for matters relating to employment.

Differences in the Court System for the US

The UK system is quite different from that of the US, particularly when the state and federal levels are taken into consideration. Each state is able to set certain rules for its citizens regarding criminal and civil law. For example, some states carry out the death penalty and others do not. The US State Court system must adhere to the Federal Rules.

The Federal Branch of the US system is the judicial branch for the Federal Government, which holds the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Appeals. The Federal Government deals with civil and criminal cases on a grand scale, as well as immigration issues. There are trial and appellate courts. Additionally the Federal Court system handles constitution, treaty, admiralty, federal laws, bankruptcy and other issues. For the state level there are trial, appellate and supreme courts.

Locating Legal Advice and Solicitors

It is important for anyone who needs help in the UK to find a solicitor who can provide legal advice they can trust. To do this, you may want to use websites, word of mouth, and other networking systems. There are four main websites run by the government and law societies. Solicitors and legal advisers are regulated and licensed; anyone on the list at The Law Society or will have a valid licence to practise law.

This website offers legal aid, legal advice, and solicitor details for expats who wish to conduct a comprehensive search.

The Law Society

This is a legal support system that registers all licensed solicitors. It details complaints and removals from the list, as well as a comprehensive UK list of legal helpers.

Scottish Legal Aid Board

Since Scots Law is in place, there are regulations that may differ regarding legal practitioners outside of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. To help expats connect with those versed in Scots Law there is the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission

With Northern Ireland being separated by water from Scotland, England, and Wales it is helpful to check the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission as well.

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