There are a number of distinctions to be drawn in relation to the courts and tribunals system.

Civil and criminal courts

The civil courts adjudicate on disputes regarding the rights and obligations owed between different persons (whether individuals or businesses). Their work covers, for example, cases on breach of contract and on negligence, but there are many more specialist areas of civil law too. The criminal courts are concerned with trying and sentencing offences.

Senior and lower courts

There is a hierarchy of courts and tribunals in the UK, and rules about which is the correct court or tribunal to use in any particular case. The correct court or tribunal for a particular matter is said to have ‘jurisdiction’ in respect of that matter. The lower courts tend to have more limited jurisdiction, and generally hear less serious cases. They are also subject to supervision by the senior courts. Read more about the hierarchy in the tribunal system.

The hierarchy is important because of the doctrine of precedent: while a court or tribunal must have regard to a previous decision on the same matter by any other court or tribunal, there is a positive obligation to follow previous decisions of a court or tribunal which is more senior in the hierarchy.

Trial and appellate courts

The trial court or tribunal is the first to decide the matter. This court or tribunal is also known as the court or tribunal of first instance. The losing party usually has the right to appeal the decision to a more senior court or tribunal, although there are rules about what matters may be appealed, and strict time limits for bringing an appeal. Some courts (for example, the County Court and the High Court) have both first instance and appellate jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are only appellate courts. However, the Supreme Court is also responsible for hearing cases regarding the legislative competence of Senedd Cymru and the other devolved legislatures – in that respect it acts as a form of constitutional court.

Courts and tribunals

The systems of courts and tribunals are distinct. There are a variety of different tribunals, each covering a specialist area. For example, there is a specialist tax tribunal and an employment tribunal. The courts tend to be more generalist, although there is still a degree of specialisation so that different types of case are allocated to different courts. The distinction between a court and a tribunal is important since the rules on contempt of court only apply to a court (although the name given to a court or tribunal is not always a reliable guide as to whether it counts as a court for the purposes of the rules on contempt of court).

The structure chart for the courts in England and Wales can be found on the Judiciary UK website.

Published on
10 March 2021
Last updated
21 June 2021