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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

Outline of court structure in England & Wales

This chart is from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (external link) (PDF) website.

A chart of the court system for Northern Ireland

Outline of the court structure in 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

House of Lord
Court of Session
High Court of Justiciary
Sheriff's Court
District Courts

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Official Sources of Law

Legislation

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. 

Judicial Decisions

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.

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Print Sources

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.

General Materials

  • 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

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Web Sources

Legislation

Judicial Decisions

Government Sites

For more information on United Kingdom see:

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Last Updated: 03/07/2014