Introduction to United Kingdom's Legal System
Type of Legal System
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the collective name of four countries, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The four separate countries were united under a single Parliament through a series of Acts of Union. The United Kingdom has recently undergone a period of devolution with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly that have the authority to legislate in defined areas.
The legal system in the United Kingdom is common law based, with origins from Roman law and considerable Anglo-Saxon influence. The judiciary interprets statutes passed by Parliament, and follows its own precedence. Statutory laws consist of Acts of Parliament (primary legislation) and subordinate legislation, which predominately consists of statutory instruments (also known as regulations, secondary or delegated legislation) made by Parliament. The common law consists of judicial decisions from the higher courts and the “decisions of any of the courts or tribunals of the United Kingdom in construing legislation.”
Levels of the Court System
This chart is from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (external link) (PDF) website.
A chart of the court system for Northern Ireland
This chart is from the Northern Ireland Court Service Education Online (external link) (PDF) website.
A chart of the court system for Scotland
Official Sources of Law
Official Acts of Parliament and secondary legislation are currently published through The Stationary Office (external link).
The Office of Public Sector Information (external link) publishes the official version of online legislation for the United Kingdom. The following resources are available from its website:
- Acts of Parliament: 1988 – current;
- Statutory instruments: 1987 – current;
- Scottish Acts of Parliament and Statutory Instruments: 1999 – current;
- Scottish Statutory Instruments: 1999 – current;
- Welsh Statutory Instruments: 1999 – current;
- Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly: 2000 – current;
- Northern Ireland Statutory Rules (SRs): 2000 – current
This legislation is printed “as published” on the website and not codified or consolidated to take into account amendments or repeals or the laws entry into force. As such, while this web site is an official source for law, it is often not an accurate representation of the current status of the law.
An “official revised edition of the primary legislation” in the UK is available online through the target="_blank" class="external"Ministry of Justice Statute Law Database (external link), although the revised version of the legislation typically is a couple of years behind.
There are a large number of commercial case reporters in the United Kingdom. The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales (external link), a charitable organization, publishes the official Law Reports, the most authoritative reports of cases in England and Wales. When a case is reported in the Law Reports, a Practice Direction requires that this source be cited, and that other reporters only be used in the event that the case has not been published in the Law Reports.
The official source for cases from the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary, Scotland’s highest civil and criminal court, respectively are The Session Cases. These reports are published by the Scottish Council of Law Reporting (external link), a charitable body, and have been recognized as the most authoritative reporter for cases as the court revises the judgments published therein. The Session Cases are published in 6 parts throughout the year.
Acts of Parliament:
- Statutes of the Realm (1235-1713), KD130 1235 LLRR
- The Statutes at Large (1225-1800), KD 130 1215m LLWEST
- Public General Acts of Parliament (1866-current) KD135.L3 G74 – official version of Acts of Parliament.
- Statutory Instruments (1949-current) KD166 .G74 – official version of Statutory Instruments.
- Statutory Rules and Orders (1891-1948) KD166 .G74 – official version of Statutory Rules and Orders.
- Chronological table of the Statutes – Northern Ireland KDE 47. S73 ed. 29 2002 LLWEST
- Halsbury’s Statutes of England, KD135.H3 G74 – this commercial title provides a consolidated version of legislation.
- Halsbury’s Statutes Citator 2006 (Julia Golding et al. eds., 2006) KD 135 H3 G74 – this title is indispensable in ascertaining the current status of legislation.
- Halsbury’s Statutory Instruments Citator 2007, LAW Great Britain 2 1995 – Citator 2007 – this title is indispensable in ascertaining the current status of statutory instruments.
- Blackstone’s Criminal Practice (13th ed., Peter Murphy et al. eds., 2003), KD 7869 B584
- Chitty on Contracts (29th ed., H.G. Beale et al. eds., 2004) KD 1554 .C48 2004 v. 1 LLWEST
- Clerk and Lindsell on Torts (19th ed. Anthony M. Dugdale ed al. eds., 2006) KD 1949 .C54 2006 LLWEST
- Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice,(23rd ed., Sir William Mckay et al. eds., 2004) KD 4354 .M38 2004 LLWEST
- Francis Bennion, Statutory Interpretation, 2002, 4th ed. KD 691 B463 2002
- Halsbury’s Laws of England, (Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone ed al. eds) KD310 .H34 LLRR
- The Laws of Scotland : Stair memorial encyclopaedia, (Law Society of Scotland) KDC150 .L39 1987
- The Office of Public Sector Information (external link) – the official version of legislation for the United Kingdom.
- The Statute Law Database (external link) – an official revised version of legislation from the Ministry of Justice (external link).
- Swarb.co.uk (external link) – various Acts of Parliament back to the thirteenth century – some contain full text and some are extracts.
- Index of Bills before Parliament (external link) – includes links to debates and relevant accompanying reports.
- Her Majesty’s Court Service (external link) – selected judicial decisions for England and Wales.
- Northern Ireland Court Service (external link) – selected judicial decisions for Northern Ireland.
- Scottish Court Service (external link) – selected judicial decisions for Scotland - cases from the Court of Session (civil) and High Court of Justiciary (criminal) from September 1998.
- HeinOnline (external link) – a subscription database available onsite at the Library of Congress. Contains the full version of the English Reports Full Reprint of the Nominative Reports covering the period 1220-1865.
- The Proceedings of the Old Bailey (external link) – judicial decisions of Old Bailey Criminal Court.
- Incorporated Council of Law Reporting (external link) – summaries of selected judicial decisions from the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting.
- British and Irish Legal Information Institute (external link) - judicial decisions and statutes for the UK.
- Daily Law Notes (external link) - summaries of selected recent judicial decisions.
- Law Library, Guide to Law Online, United Kingdom (external link).
- United Kingdom Government (external link) Home Page
- Scottish Parliament (external link) – includes official report of the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament; Parliamentary procedure; research briefings; standing orders; and bills before Parliament.
- National Assembly for Wales (external link) – includes legislation; Assembly resolutions; consultation papers; standing orders; and Agendas and minutes.
- Northern Ireland Assembly (external link)
- House of Commons Hansard (external link) – House of Commons, daily debates starting from session 1988/89 and Standing Committee debates on Bills from 1997/98.
- House of Lords Hansard (external link) – debates of the House of Lords back to June 1996.
- Parliamentary Publications (external link) – An archive of parliamentary publications, includes selected Sessional Papers; House of Commons Library Research Papers; Standing Orders; Select Committee Publications; and Standard Notes
For more information on United Kingdom see:
Last Updated: 01/23/2015