court

Courts in England

In England, after the Norman Conquest (1066), royal authority was gradually extended over the feudal lords, and by the early 13th cent., although purely local courts had not been abolished, the supremacy of the central courts that had evolved from the Curia Regis [Lat., = king's court], namely, the Court of Exchequer, the Court of Common Pleas, and King's Bench, was established. The Court of Common Pleas heard cases between ordinary subjects of the king, while King's Bench heard cases involving persons of high rank and acted as a court of appeals. Soon itinerant royal courts were established to spare civil litigants the labor and expense of going to the capital at Westminster and to afford hearings to persons held on criminal charges in county jails. By the 14th cent. the principal function of the central courts was to hear appeals from the circuit courts.

Unity was at least temporarily disrupted by the emergence (16th cent.) of equity as a distinct body of law administered by the chancery. The conflict of jurisdiction continued to some extent until 1875, when the Judicature Act of 1873 went into effect. As presently constituted as a result of subsequent reforms, the courts of England and Wales consist of the Court of Appeal, the High Court (with civil jurisdiction), the Crown Court (with criminal jurisdiction), the county courts, and the magistrates' courts. The High Court is divided, purely for administrative purposes, into three divisions: Chancery, Family, and King's (or Queen's) Bench. Appeals were in some instances taken from the court of appeal to the House of Lords, but the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established a Supreme Court for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which began work in 2009, ending the role of the House of Lords as the highest court of appeal. The judicial committee of the privy council, of which the Supreme Court justices are members, hears appeals from overseas territories still under British domain and from some Commonwealth countries.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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