The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






High Court of Justice of England and Wales

Her Majesty's High Court of Justice (known more simply as the High Court) is, together with the Crown Court and the Court of Appeal, part of the Supreme Court of England and Wales in England and Wales: see Courts of England and Wales.

It deals at first instance with all the most high value and high importance cases, and also has a supervisory jurisdiction over all subordinate courts and tribunals. Appeal from the High Court in civil matters lies to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and thence to the House of Lords.

The High Court is based at the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand, in central London. However, it also sits as 'District Registries' all across England and Wales and virtually all proceedings in the High Court may be issued and heard at a district registry. It is headed by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. By convention, all of its male judges are made Knights Bachelor, while all of its female ones are made Dames Commander of the British Empire.

The High Court is split into three divisions, the Queen's Bench Division, the Chancery Division and the Family Division.


Queen's Bench Division

The Queen's Bench Division — or King's Bench Division when the monarch is a King — has two roles. It hears a wide range of contract law and personal injury / general negligence cases, but also has special responsibility as a supervisory court. The head of the QBD is the Lord Chief Justice (currently Lord Woolf).

Queen's Bench Division judges, along with circuit judges also exercise a criminal jurisdiction when sitting in the Crown Court. In addition, the Divisional Court of the Division hears appeals on points of law from magistrates' courts and from Crown courts which have heard appeals from magistrates' courts (see UK Court System for an explanation of these courts). All claims for judicial review of administrative decisions or decisions of inferior tribunals are heard by a Queen's Bench judge or a Divisional Court. Appeals from the High Court in civil matters lie to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division); in criminal matters appeal lies only to the House of Lords.

Sub-divisions of the Queen's Bench Division include the Commercial Court, the Admiralty Court and the Administrative Court (where claims for judicial review are heard).

Chancery Division

The Chancery Division deals with business law, trusts law, probate law, land law in relation to issues of equity. In addition it has specialist courts within it which deal with intellectual property and company law. The head of the Chancery Division is the Vice-Chancellor (currently Sir Andrew Morritt ).

Family Division

The Family Division deals with matters such as divorce, children, probate and medical treatment. Its decisions may concern life and death and are perhaps inevitably regarded as controversial. For example, it permitted a hospital to separate conjoined twins without the parents' consent; and allowed one woman to have her life support machines turned off, while not permitting a husband to give his severely disabled wife a lethal injection with her consent. The High Court Family Division has jurisdiction to hear all cases relating to children's welfare and interest, and exercises an exclusive jurisdiction in wardship cases. The head of the Family Division is the President of the Family Division Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, one of the few female High Court judges. Its most senior court is the Principal Registry of the Family Division which is based in First Avenue House, Holborn, London.

The Family Division is comparatively modern, having been formed by combining the Admiralty Court and probate courts into the then Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, or Wills, Wrecks and Wives as it was informally called.

The Supervisory Role of the High Court and Circuits

Historically, the source of all justice in England was the monarch. All judges sit in judgement on her behalf (hence why they have the royal coat of arms behind them) and criminal prosecutions made by the state are generally made on her behalf. Historically, local lords were permitted to admister justice in Manorial Courts and other ways. Inevitably, the justice administered was patchy and appeals were made direct to the King. The King's travelling representatives (whose primary purpose was tax collection) acted on behalf of the king to make the administration of justice more even. The tradition of judges travelling in set areas of the country or 'circuits' remains to this day, where they hear cases in the district registries of the High Court. It is also on behalf of the monarch that the Queen's Bench Division oversees all lesser courts and all government authority. Generally, unless other appeal processes are laid down in law, anyone who wants to challenge any decision of a lesser court, tribunal, government authority or state authority brings a claim for judicial review in the Queen's Bench Division. This is a special procedure in the Administrative Court of the Queen's Bench Division. A single judge first decides whether the matter is fit to bring to the court (to weed out cranks and unwinnable cases) and if so the matter is allowed to go forward to a full judicial review hearing. This is not a jury matter. Appeals are to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and then to the House of Lords, or in criminal matters, directly to the House of Lords.

Last updated: 05-15-2005 14:36:52