It is important to note that there have been a few changes to the structure of the civil courts system in England and Wales over the past 10 years or so, the most important of which occurred at the very top of this hierarchical chain with a change in name from the House of Lords to the Supreme Court. Also, there have been a few changes to the Family Court that primarily derived from Part II of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.
The best way to summarise the civil law courts system of England and Wales is to start from the bottom and work your way up the hierarchical chain. As we progress through the different levels of court, you will notice that the importance of the court becomes increasingly profound, especially each court’s ability to set precedents for the lower-ranking courts beneath them when decisions are made over important cases.
The County Court
These types of court sit at various locations across England and Wales and are the first rung on the ladder when it comes to dealing with most cases of civil law, unless the claim is for a high amount or of a complex nature. In a county court, you can make a claim against another individual or a building society’s case to repossess a property from a defaulting mortgagor can be heard there, for example. Cases are heard by a Circuit or a District Judge who decides the verdict based on points of law and the evidentiary support presented.
The Family Court
Different areas of the country have a designated Family Centre where the local Family Judge is based. These centres are usually based at County Court hearing centres and deal with Divorces/Dissolutions. Cases can also be dealt with in the Magistrates' Courts and High Court District Registries. Family Judges can be lay Magistrates, District Judges, Circuit Judges or High Court Judges who have experience in Family Law.
The next court in the hierarchy is the High Court, which has 3 divisions: the Family Division, the Queen’s Bench Division and the Chancery Division. It is important to note, at this point, that each of these divisions has different procedures involved in their everyday running and deal with different matters of law; however, they are all still part of the same High Court. Each Court has a Head Judge and Puisne Judges. Where there are any appeal cases from a County Court or Family Court, these are heard in the High Court. It is important to note that decisions made in the High Court are binding on the High Court itself and courts below in the future, but not on higher-ranking courts.
Court of Appeal
The penultimate court in the hierarchy, as the name suggests, only deals with appeals from the High Court. For civil claims, these are heard in the Civil Division. The Court of Appeal also has a Criminal Division for related cases. Judges who sit in the Court of Appeal are called 'Lord Justices of Appeal. Decisions reached in the Court of Appeal are binding on itself in the future and on all courts below it, but not on the Supreme Court above it.
The Supreme Court
As we have already mentioned, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, known previously as the House of Lords for many centuries. It was thought that people would understand the new title of this court and functioning far better, as the same title is already in use in many countries around the world. The Supreme Court deals with cases from the Court of Appeal, and decisions reached here are binding across the entire legal system in the future. The Head of The Supreme Court is the ‘President of the Supreme Court’ assisted by a Vice-President. The Judges that sit in the Supreme Court are called 'Justices of the Supreme Court' and consist of ten in number.
The European Court of Justice
Although the Supreme Court is officially ranked as the most senior in the court system of England and Wales, we need to bear in mind that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) actually has the final say in our law at present when it comes to matters pertaining to the EU. Once the United Kingdom triggers Article 50 of the Maastricht Treaty (estimated to be around March 2017), the ECJ will no longer have a final say over any legal matters within the United Kingdom after a period of two years has elapsed.