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United Kingdom: Courts and Case Law

A research guide to legal sources in the UK.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (UKSC) was designated as such by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. It evolved from the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in an effort to create a judiciary independent from Parliament. The UKSC began operating in 2009 and hears appeals in all civil cases and in criminal cases from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Court has appellate jurisdiction and can receive referred questions on issues relating to devolution.[i]

            Print Resources

  • Andrew Le Sueur, Building the UK’s New Supreme Court: National and Comparative Perspectives (2004). KD 7111.B85 2004

            Online Resources

  • The Supreme Court, (last visited Nov. 8, 2015) (the official government website)
  • UK Supreme Court, The Guardian, (last visited Nov. 8, 2015) (all stories categorized by the newspaper, The Guardian, on the Court)
  • UKSC Blog, (last visited Nov. 8, 2015). This website contains commentary on court decisions by UK practitioners, both solicitors and barristers, who specialize in litigation and the UKSC. This is a great resource for staying up-to-date on practitioners' issues in the UK. There is a very helpful Table of Cases that provides summaries and commentaries on decisions and links to official government documents. 

[i] Constitutional Reform Act 2005,; Erin F. Delany, Judiciary Rising: Constitutional Change in the United Kingdom, 108 Nw. L. Rev. 543, 569-572 (2014); A Guide to Bringing a Case to The Supreme Court, The Supreme Court (last visited Nov. 8, 2015).

Royal Court of Justice Building in London

England and Wales

These courts are generally divided by civil and criminal cases. Each court is further defined by the types of cases it has jurisdiction over (minor or major claims or crimes). The highest appellate court, underneath the Supreme Court, is the Court of Appeal, which has a civil and a criminal division. Beneath that is the High Court, which is split into three divisions: Chancery, Queen’s Bench, and Family. Only the Queen’s Bench division hears criminal cases in the High Court. These divisions are mainly courts of first instance but have appellate jurisdiction in certain cases. More minor courts for civil claims are the County Courts, Crown Courts, and Magistrate Courts; for criminal law, they are the Magistrate Courts and the Crown Courts. The Crown Courts may have initial jurisdiction or appellate review over the Magistrate Court. There is also a local system, independently funded and resourced, called the Coroners Courts; these Coroners are not technically considered members of the judiciary.

     Print Resources

  • Phil Harris, An Introduction to Law (2007) (concise accounting of the UK legal system). KD 660.H36 2007

     Online Resources

Scotland and Northern Ireland


The Scottish courts are similarly divided by civil and criminal cases. The majority of cases in Scotland are heard in the Sheriff Courts that have civil and criminal divisions, although there is a lower level criminal court, Justice of the Peace Courts. The highest civil court is the Court of Session, which is divided into the Inner House (appeals) and the Outer House (first instance). Appeals from the Court of Session are made to the Supreme Court. The High Court of Justiciary is the supreme court of criminal law in Scotland. It is primarily appellate but may hear serious cases in the first instance. There is no appeal to the Supreme Court.

Print Resources

  • C M G Himsworth & C M O’Neill, Scotland’s Constitution: Law and Practice (2d ed. 2009). KDC 752 .H56 2009
  • William J. Stewart, Scottish Contemporary Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases (1995). KDC 152 .S84 1995 (reference)

Online Resources


Northern Ireland

The courts in Northern Ireland are organized very similarly to those in England and Wales. The UK Supreme Court has the same appellate jurisdiction, unlike in Scotland. The Court of Appeal has jurisdiction over all appeals in criminal and civil cases. In civil matters, the High Court hears complex cases in the first instance and takes appeals from the County Court. In criminal matters, depending on the seriousness of the criminal case, it will be heard by either the Crown Court (more serious) or the Magistrates Court (less serious). There is also a system of Coroners Courts that “investigate unexplained deaths.

Online Resources