The High Court

What is the High Court?

The High Court deals with civil cases – in fact it has the power to hear any civil case. It is based in London at the Royal Courts of Justice but throughout England and Wales there are also district registries: judges sitting in numerous towns and cities. It is the main civil court in England and Wales and the more substantial and complex cases are begun here.

Precedent and hierarchy

It is bound by decisions of all the courts above it (i.e. European Court, House of Lords, Court of Appeal and Divisional Courts). Any appeal from the decision of a High Court judge is made to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court. In turn it binds the lower courts – County Court and Magistrates’ Court.

High Court judges do not have to follow each others’ decisions but this is usually the case. For example, if there are two earlier conflicting decisions, the more recent case will be followed if it had taken the first case into account. This is the doctrine of precedent and means that the court is bound by its previous rulings.

The three divisions which make up the High Court are:
  •   The Queen’s Bench Division

  •   The Chancery Division

  •   The Family Division

The Queen’s Bench Division

Around 70 judges sit in the Queen’s Bench Division that is presided over by the Lord Chief Justice. Its remit is contract and tort cases in which the amount claimed is over £50,000.

Usually the High Court only deals with multi-track cases. As already mentioned it is above the County Court and some types of action are seen as more suitable for the High Court.

For most cases, a single judge will try the case. However, for such things as fraud, libel, slander, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment there is a right to a jury (of twelve members) trial. In other instances, the use of a jury is an exception.

The Commercial Court

The Commercial Court specializes in insurance, banking and other such commercial cases. Judges who sit at this court use quick, straightforward procedures by comparison and may decide the case simply on documentary evidence.

The Admiralty Court

The Admiralty Court specializes in shipping matters: for instance claims for damage caused by a collision or disputes over salvage rights of sunken or stranded ships. As well as the judge, two assessors from Masters of Trinity House sit in the Admiralty Court. They are there to advise the judge with their expert knowledge of the sea.

The Technology and Construction Court

The Technology and Construction Court deals with cases in either the Queen’s Bench Division or the Chancery Division that involve technical knowledge. Examples are complex issues regarding construction, engineering or computing. This court was set up in 1998 to replace the Official Referee’s Court.

Judicial Review

The Queen’s Bench Division is also concerned with the legality of decision-making processes both in inferior courts and other bodies such as local councils and Government ministers. Judicial review operates as a supervisory function over these bodies that have decision-making powers. They are concerned with the process itself rather than the merits of the actual decision. They hear appeals from magistrates’ courts and crown courts.

Chancery Division

This is the second of the three divisions that make up the High Court. Around seventeen judges sit in this division that is headed by the Vice Chancellor, though technically by the Lord Chancellor.

This court deals with litigation over matters of land, wills, the administration of estates, insolvency (both companies and individuals), mortgages and their enforcement, partnership disputes, intellectual property, disputes on trust, property, copyright, registered designs and patents and contested probate actions.

The Companies Court within the Chancery Division deals with cases involving the winding up of companies. Cases including bankruptcy appeals are tried by a single judge and juries are never used in this Division under any circumstances.

Family Division

In this, the third of the divisions making up the High Court, there are around seventeen judges and it is also headed by the President Lord Chief Justice. The Family Division deals with all cases relating to children under the 1989 Children Act and also wardship disputes.

Its jurisdiction also covers other family matters including marriage nullifications and grants probate in non-contentious probate cases. The division also hears appeals from magistrates and county courts on family proceedings.

Cases are tried by a single judge and juries are not used in this Division although this was once the practice on defended divorce cases.