What is the High Court?
The High Court is the third highest court in the UK. It deals with civil cases and appeals of decisions made in lower courts. It is based in London at the Royal Courts of Justice, but it has district registries throughout England and Wales where almost all High Court proceedings may be issued and heard.
High Court cases are usually heard by a single judge, but certain types of hearings – such as criminal appeals and judicial review cases – are assigned to a Divisional Court, a bench of two or more judges. A jury will occasionally sit in the High Court, but only in cases involving defamation, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and fraud.
Precedent and hierarchy
The High Court is bound by the doctrine of precedent by the decisions of all the courts above it (ie, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal). 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, the High Court’s decisions bind the lower courts (eg, the county court).
High Court judges do not have to follow each others’ decisions, although previous High Court authority is deemed as highly persuasive and they therefore usually do so.
The three divisions which make up the High Court are the:
- Queen’s Bench Division;
- Chancery Division;
- Family Division.
Queen’s Bench Division
More than 70 judges sit in the Queen’s Bench Division (QBD). It is presided over by the President of the QBD. Its remit is contract and tort cases. QBD judges also preside over specialist matters, such as applications for judicial review and will travel around the country to hear the most important criminal cases in the Crown Court. They also sit in the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
Courts of the QBD include the:
- Commercial Court;
- Technology and Construction Court;
- Mercantile Court;
- Admiralty Court;
- Administrative Court;
- Planning Court.
The Commercial Court deals with complex cases arising out of national and international business disputes. It focuses particularly on insurance and reinsurance, banking and financial markets, commodities, shipping and arbitration.
Technology and Construction Court
The Technology and Construction Court (TCC) has specialist judges who deal with all types of UK and international construction, engineering and technology disputes. It also deals with professional negligence cases involving construction, engineering and technology, environmental issues and public procurement. It was set up in 1998 to replace the Official Referee’s Court.
The London Mercantile Court deals with business disputes of all kinds (although particularly bigger, high value, or more complex cases will be heard by the Commercial Court). Mercantile Courts also operate in regional centres throughout England and Wales. Cases dealt with include commercial contracts, domestic and international sale of goods, commodities trading, insurance and reinsurance, banking, and guarantees, commercial agencies, professional negligence, confidential information and restraint of trade.
The Admiralty Court deals with shipping and maritime disputes, such as collision, salvage, carriage of cargo, limitation and mortgage disputes. It has the power to arrest vessels and cargoes and sell them within England and Wales.
The Administrative Court assesses the lawfulness of the acts and omissions of central and local government, regulatory and disciplinary bodies, inferior courts and tribunals, and other public bodies and officials exercising public functions. It has both a civil and criminal jurisdiction. This supervisory jurisdiction is exercised mainly through the procedure of judicial review.
The Planning Court is part of the Administrative Court which deals with all judicial reviews and statutory challenges involving planning matters. It is overseen by the Planning Liaison Judge.
Currently 18 judges sit in the Chancery Division, which is headed by the Chancellor of the High Court. In addition, in London, there are six Masters, and five Bankruptcy Registrars. There are also several specialist Circuit Judges and District Judges who sit outside London and – in the case of the Circuit Judges – sometimes in London.
This Chancery Division deals with a variety of civil work, including specialist work involving companies, patents and contentious probate.
Courts of the Chancery Division include the:
- Bankrupcty and Companies Courts;
- Patents Court;
- Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC).
Bankruptcy and Companies Court
The Bankruptcy Court deals with the insolvency of individuals, while the Companies Court deals with the insolvency of companies, applications in company law and applications for the disqualification of company directors. Most of the cases in these courts are dealt with by the five Bankruptcy Registrars.
The Patents Court hears complex cases concerning patents, registered designs and plant varieties.
Intellectual Property Enterprise Court
The Intellectual Property Enterprise Court deals with small and medium sized enterprises and individuals involved in intellectual property disputes (mainly patents, trademarks and passing off, designs and copyright). It hears shorter, less complex, less valuable claims than those heard in the Patents Court and general Chancery Division.
The Family Division deals with all cases relating to children and is the only court that can deal with wardship. It also hears cases involving divorce, probate and medical treatment. It is overseen by the President of the Family Division and has 20 judges. Judges in the Family Division also hear appeals from the family court.