This module deals with the legal system of the United Kingdom. By the end of this module, you will be able to locate
- guides to the legal system of the United Kingdom and its component jurisdictions
- Bills, Acts and Regulations of the UK Parliament and regional assemblies
- sources for the legislative history of UK Acts
- United Kingdom case law.
Why study the law of the United Kingdom? The obvious reason is that Australian law evolved from the English common law. Another is that the separation of the legal systems of Australia and the United Kingdom is a relatively recent event. Federation in 1901 did not put an end to the power of courts in the United Kingdom to decide questions relating to Australian law. The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal for Australian courts for most of the twentieth century.
The end of the Privy Council's role in 1986 did not mean that the decisions of United Kingdom courts are no longer relevant to Australian jurists. Although no longer binding, precdents from Great Britain are still extremely influential. Where no similar Australian cases have arisen, Australian courts are often prepared to consider precedents from the United Kingdom, and follow them when they seem persuasive. Even now, the High Court regularly cites cases from courts in the United Kingdom in its decisions.
Since 1986, the Australian law has undergone two decades of separate development. In particular, the growing body of Federal and State legislation has taken Australia law further away from its English origins. One example of this trend is the manner in which legislation has gradually shifted Australian corporate law in the direction of the United States model. Another factor is the increasing influence of European law on the United Kingdom courts. Since 2000, the impact of European Human Rights law has been felt across the legal system in the United Kingdom. As the law of the United Kingdom develops in response to the reception of European law, the relevance of UK authorities to Australian courts can only diminish.
What about Scots Law?
The law of the United Kingdom includes three major legal systems: English law (which includes Wales), the law of Northern Ireland and Scots law. The first two are common law systems, the last is characterised as a mixed system. Although Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, Scots law is very different from its English counterpart. Scotland was an independent country until 1707, and its law has continued an independent course of development until the present day. Although Scots law has been strongly influenced by the English common law, it owes a greater debt to Roman law. Scots law incorporates many civil law doctrines developed by Continental jurists during the seventeenth century. In addition, some aspects of Scots law reflect the law of feudal Scotland.
The differences between Scots and English law range from the trivial to the profound. Majority verdicts are acceptable in criminal cases. Scots juries have the option of returning a verdict of "not proven". The Scots equivalent to the law of tort is the law of delict, a term which comes from Roman law. In relation to the law of contract, Scots law does not recognise the doctrine of considerations or the privity of contract.
General guides to the law of the United Kingdom
There are a number of online guides to the legal system of the United Kingdom. Two of the best are:
- UK Legal System. Although from a US site, this page is by Sarah Carter, Law Librarian at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
- English Law. This is a comprehensive guide in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format from the Library of the Duke University School of Law.
The following provide guides to sources of material on the legal systems of Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively:
- Scottish Law. This page offers an extensive collection of links to online material on the Scottish legal system and Scots law.
- Northern Ireland Law. This document is provided by the Library of Queen's University at Belfast. It consists of a short guide to the subject in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format.
Halsbury's Laws of England is an encyclopedia which offers a comprehensive statement of the laws of England and Wales. This source consists of 56 main volumes, along with monthly and annual supplements. Halsbury's is available online through Halsbury's Law Direct or LexisNexis.
The Laws of Scotland: Stair Memorial Encyclopedia provides a Scottish equivalent to Halsbury's. Like Halsbury's the Laws of Scotland includes regular supplments and updates.
There is no equivalent publication for the law of Northern Ireland.
The BAILII site gives online access to case law and legislation for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland (Eire). The databases also includes European Union case law, Law Commission Reports and other law-related British and Irish material. In 2007, BAILII included 76 databases covering 7 jurisdictions. The system contains over 11 gigabytes of legal materials and over 200,000 searchable documents.
The United Kingdom has no written constitution. Rather than a single legislative instrument, there are hundreds of Acts with constitutional importance. These range from ancient statutes such as the Act of Union (1707) to recent primary legislation such as the Constitutional Reform Act (2005). Precedents made by the UK courts provide another enduring source of constitutional law. The final sources of constitutional law are the constitutional conventions established by long usage and the rule of law itself.
The Constitution of the United Kingdom is far from static. Reforms over the last decade have included devolution of power to regional assemblies, radical changes to the make-up of the House of Lords and the creation of a Supreme Court.
The United Kingdom Parliament sitting at Westminster is the supreme legislative body in Great Britain. There are three other major assemblies, each established by separate Acts of the Westminster Parliament passed in 1998. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is the most powerful of the regional assemblies. It has broad powers to legislate for Scotland. The Northern Ireland Assembly, sitting in Stormont near Belfast, can issue both primary legislation (Acts) and delegated legislation within its area of competence. The National Assembly for Wales is the weakest of the regional assemblies, as it can only issue delegated legislation within restricted areas of competence.
The Westminster Parliament is a bicameral legislature. The House of Commons provides an elected Lower House. The House of Lords, now consisting of a mixture of hereditary peers and appointees, provides the Upper House. Each of the regional assemblies is unicameral and elected by popular vote.
Recent and current Bills before the Westminster Parliament can be found on the Bills and Legislation Page on the UK Parliament site. Current Bills before the Scottish Parliament are also available online, as are recent and current Bills before the Northern Ireland Assembly. Draft subordinate legislation under consideration by the National Assembly for Wales is also available on the Web.
The Legislation.gov site has replaced many of the traditional printed sources of UK Acts. It provides a near-comprehensive guide to UK Legislation, including primary legislation passed by the regional assemblies and English Acts back to 1267.
In the United Kingdom, a piece of delegated or subordinate legislation is often termed a secondary or statutory instrument. Recent Statutory Instruments are available at the Legislation.gov site. This site includes all Statutory Instruments passed by the UK Parliament, Scottish Statutory Instruments, Statutory Rules made by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Statutory Instruments made by the National Assembly for Wales.
Halsbury's Statutory Instruments (HSI) provides a subject-based guide to UK delegated legislation. The series incorporates the following:
- Chronological List of Instruments
- Table of Instruments no Longer in Operation
- Table of Statutes and Commencement Dates
- Updated Consolidated Index.
The print version of HSI consists of 22 volumes in addition to monthly and annual updates. This source is also available electronically through LexisNexis.
The UK Parliament site includes detailed notes on the progress of a Bill, as well as related documents (such as Reports, Explanatory Notes and even petitions against a Bill). Explanatory Notes for UK Bills are available from the Bills and Legislation Page. Explanatory notes for Acts are available from the Legislation.gov site.
Detailed material on the history of legislation passed by the regional assemblies is also available from the sites of the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.
The full text of debates in the Westminster Parliament is available in the form of the official Hansard. This is accessible online at the UK Parliament site. Official Reports of the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly are also available online, as are the Records of Proceedings for the National Assembly for Wales.
In general, Parliamentary Papers for the UK Parliament are divided into two categories: Command Papers and House of Commons Papers. Command Papers include consultation documents (Green Papers), major policy proposals (White Papers), treaties and official responses to major committees of inquiry. House of Commons papers are produced by select and other committees.
The soon-to-be-decommissioned OPSI site has a list of Command Papers from 2001 onwards. Links to recent House of Commons papers are available from the Committee publications page at the UK Parliament site.
Most Scottish Parliamentary Papers are issued by Committees of the Scottish Parliament. Links to past Scottish Parliamentary Papers are available from the Committees page on the Scottish Parliament site. The Northern Ireland Assembly site provides a list of Assembly Committees with links to their publications. Reports issued by Committees of the National Assembly for Wales are also available online.
The University of Hull has a useful page on Finding Parliamentary Papers. This page gives details of finding aids and indexes for older materials in print.
The House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1688–2004 (HCCP) provides online access to the full-text of all Parliamentary Papers for the nineteenth century. This database is available only to subscribers.
The United Kingdom includes three separate court systems: those for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. For a quick overview of the three systems, see the Justis site.
It is important to note that the UK court system has recently undergone a fundamental reform. The judicial function of the House of Lords and its role as the final appeals court ended in July 2009. A new United Kingdom Supreme Court will sit in London from 1 October 2009. This new court will be the final appeal court for all civil law cases in the UK and all criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The new Court will sit in the former Middlesex Guildhall building opposite the Houses of Parliament in Parliament Square.
For further information see the new Supreme Court site. This site includes a database of decided cases. For older judgements, it will be necessary to consult the BAILII , the Law Reports (see below) or the House of Lords site.
English case law
The authorised law report series for England and Wales is known simply as the Law Reports. This series is published by the Incorported Council for Law Reporting in England & Wales (ICLR). The Law Reports should always be cited in preference to other law report series. They include both judicial decisions and the arguments of counsel.
The ICLR also publishes the Weekly Law Reports covering cases heard in the Superior and Appellate Courts. The Weekly Law Reports are published in four volumes: Volumes 1a and 1b contain cases which are not regarded as meriting final inclusion in The Law Reports. Volumes 2 (January to June) and 3 (July to December) cover the cases which will be published in The Law Reports together with summaries of counsel's argument.
LexisNexis provides easy access to modern English case law. The source England and Wales Reported and Unreported Cases includes the full-text of the Law Reports and All English Law Reports, as well as approximately 30 other report series. LexisNexis does not include the Weekly Law Reports.
Westlaw also contains the fulltext of the Law Reports and a number of specialist law report series.
BAILII provides a free alternative to commercial online sources of English case law materials.
For a detailed break-down of the English case law available through BAILII and LexisNexis see the page at Flinders University. There is also an excellent PowerPoint summary of sources for English case law from Oxford University.
Finding English Law Reports (1220 to 1865) using HeinOnline
Click on the Play button below to find out how to locate cases from English Law Reports (1220 to 1865).
Scottish case law
The authorised law report series for Scotland are Session Cases, Scottish Criminal Case Reports and Scottish Civil Law Reports. These are available through LexisNexis through All Scottish Reported and Unreported Cases, Scottish Reported and Unreported Cases and Scottish Session Cases.
For a break-down of the Scottish case law available online through BAILII and LexisNexis, see the page at Flinders University.
Northern Ireland case law
The Northern Ireland Law Reports are available through LexisNexis. BAILII, LexisNexis and the site of the Northern Ireland Court Service also provide access to some unreported cases.
An outline of the Northern Ireland case law available online is available from the page at Flinders University.
The Bulletin of Northern Ireland Law (BNIL) offers a digest of current legal developments in Northern Ireland. This source is available to subscribers in paper and online.
Case citators and other tools
There are a number of case citators and other finding aids for UK case law.
- Current Law Case Citator. This source is available through LexisNexis or Westlaw. It provides case reports relevant to Northern Ireland, Scotland, the EU and other overseas jurisdictions as well as English courts. It is also available in paper. It is updated through the Current Law Monthly Digest and the Current Law Yearbooks.
- Current Law Monthly Digest. This paper source provides a month by month digest of case law (England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) arranged under subject headings. This source is also available online as a supplement to the Current Law Case Citator.
- Current Law Yearbooks: This source provides an annual compilation of the cases reported in Current Law Monthly Digest. The cases for each year are listed under subject headings. This source is also available online as a supplement to the Current Law Case Citator.
- Law Reports Index. This source consists of a number of printed volumes indexing authorised law reports for the period 1951–99.
This module dealt with the legal system of the United Kingdom. It covered the following topics:
- locating guides to the legal system of the United Kingdom
- finding Bills, Acts and Regulations of the UK Parliament and regional assemblies
- locating sources for the legislative history of UK Acts
- discovering United Kingdom case law.