Why is this important?
Courts of law
This information applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- The county court
- The magistrates’ court
- The Crown Court
- The High Court
- The Court of Appeal
- The UK Supreme Court
- The Court of Justice of the European Union
- The European Court of Human Rights
The county court
Cases dealt with by the county court
The county court deals with civil cases which are dealt with by a judge or district judge. A case can be started in any county court but it may be transferred to the defendant’s local court. If the case is defended and the claim is for a fixed amount of money, the case will be transferred automatically by the court to the defendant’s local court (if the defendant is an individual not a company). In other cases the defendant can request its transfer.
All claims arising from regulated credit agreements must be started in the county court, whatever their value.
For details of regulated credit agreements, see Credit.
Examples of cases dealt with by the county court
County courts can deal with a wide range of cases, but the most common ones are:-
- landlord and tenant disputes, for example, possession (eviction), rent arrears, repairs
- consumer disputes, for example, faulty goods or services
- personal injury claims (injuries caused by negligence), for example, traffic accidents, falling into holes in the pavement, accidents at work
- undefended divorce cases and proceedings to end a registered civil partnership, but only in some county courts. In inner London the Principle registry of the family division in the Strand deals with undefended divorces and proceedings to end registered civil partnerships
- some domestic violence cases, but these may also be heard in the magistrates court
- race, sex and disability discrimination cases
- discrimination cases
- debt problems, for example, a creditor seeking payment
- employment problems, for example, wages or salary owing or pay in lieu of notice.
Small claims cases
In England and Wales, a case will, if defended, be dealt with in one of three ways. The court will decide which procedure will apply and then allocate the case to the corresponding ‘track’. The three tracks are:-
- the small claims track
- the fast track
- the multi-track.
The small claims track is the usual track for claims with a value of £10,000 or less. The procedure in the small claims track is simpler than in the other tracks and in most cases the losing party will not have to pay the other party's costs.
There is one track to small claims in Northern Ireland for claims with a value of £3,000 or less.
For more information, see Small claims.
Contact details of county courts in England and Wales
The GOV.UK website has a useful tool which helps you find the contact details of your local county court. It also sets out access details of the court, for example, whether it has toilet facilities and parking places for disabled people. Go to www.gov.uk.
The magistrates’ court
Magistrates’ courts deal with criminal and some civil cases, and cases are dealt with either by justices of the peace, who are unqualified and who are paid only expenses, or by District Judges (Magistrates’ Courts) who receive some payment. In Northern Ireland, cases are heard by paid magistrates only. Magistrates' courts usually only deal with cases which arise in their own area. In Northern Ireland, in exceptional cases, they can deal with offences that occur in a number of areas, for example, where several burglaries have been committed across a number of areas.
Criminal cases in the magistrates’ court
All criminal cases start in the magistrates' court.
Some cases begin in the magistrates' court and then automatically go to the Crown Court for trial by jury.
Other cases are started and finished in the magistrates' court. These are where the defendant is not entitled to trial by jury. They are known as summary offences. Summary offences involve a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000 (£2,000 in Northern Ireland).
Magistrates also deal with offences where the defendant can choose trial by jury but decides to have their case heard in the magistrates' court. If the defendant chooses trial by jury, the case will be passed on to the Crown Court.
The youth court
The youth court deals with young people who have committed criminal offences, and who are aged between 10 and 17. The youth court is part of the magistrates court and up to three specially-trained magistrates hear the case. If a young person is charged with a very serious offence, which in the case of an adult is punishable with 14 years imprisonment or more, the youth court can commit them for trial at the Crown Court.
Civil cases in the magistrates’ court
Magistrates can deal with a limited number of civil cases as follows:-
- some civil debts, for example, arrears of income tax, national insurance contributions, council tax and VAT arrears, rates in Northern Ireland
- some matrimonial problems, for example, maintenance and removing a spouse from the matrimonial home
- welfare of children, for example, local authority care or supervision orders, adoption proceedings and residence orders.
Contact details of magistrates' courts in England and Wales
The GOV.UK website has a useful tool which helps you find the contact details of your local magistrates' court. It also sets out access details of the court, for example, whether it has toilet facilities and parking places for disabled people. Go to www.gov.uk.
The Crown Court
The Crown Court deals with the following types of cases:-
- more serious criminal offences which will be tried by judge and jury
- appeals from the magistrates court - which are dealt with by a judge and at least two magistrates
- convictions in the magistrates' court that are referred to the Crown Court for sentencing.
Imprisonment and fines in the Crown Court are more severe than in the magistrates' court.
Contact details of Crown Courts in England and Wales
The GOV.UK website has a useful tool which helps you find the contact details of your local Crown Court. It also sets out access details of the court, for example, whether it has toilet facilities and parking places for disabled people. Go to www.gov.uk.
The High Court
The High Court deals with civil cases, hears appeals in criminal cases, and also has the power to review the actions of individuals or organisations to make sure they have acted legally and justly. The High Court has three divisions, as follows:-
The Family Division
The Family Division deals with complex defended divorce cases, dissolution of civil partnerships, wardship, adoption, domestic violence and so on. It also deals with appeals from magistrates and county courts in matrimonial cases.
In Northern Ireland, the Family Division also deals with the affairs of people who are mentally ill and simple probate matters.
The Queens Bench Division
The Queens Bench Division deals with large and/or complex claims for compensation. It also deals with a limited number of appeals from magistrates courts or Crown Courts, as well as reviewing the actions of organisations to see whether they have acted legally, and with libel and slander actions.
The Chancery Division
The Chancery Division deals with trusts, contested wills, winding up companies, bankruptcy, mortgages, charities, contested revenue (usually income tax) cases etc.
Non-family claims in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, the High Court can be used for a case if the value of the claim is over £30,000. In some circumstances, a case over £30,000 can be transferred to the county court and similarly a case under the value of £30,000 can be transferred to the High Court.
The Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal deals with civil and criminal appeals in England and Wales. Civil appeals from the High Court and the county court are dealt with, as well as appeals from certain tribunals such as the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Criminal appeals include appeals against convictions in the Crown Court, and points of law referred by the Attorney General following acquittal in the Crown Court or where the sentence imposed was unduly lenient.
In Northern Ireland, there can be a rehearing of a county court case in the High Court and an appeal from there if the case is stated to the Court of Appeal.
The UK Supreme Court deals with civil and criminal appeals from the Court of Appeal, or in some cases the High Court where the case involves a point of law or is of general public importance.
If your problem is one which is covered by European law, your case may be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), based in Luxembourg. This may happen if European legislation has not been implemented properly by a national government, if there is confusion over its interpretation, or if it has been ignored.
You must first pursue your case through the national legal system, but the national court can (and in some cases must) refer an issue to the CJEU for guidance (a ruling). The case is then sent back to the national court to make a decision based on the ruling of the CJEU.
The European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, deals with cases in which a person thinks their human rights have been contravened and for which there is no legal remedy within the national legal system.