Portal:Law of England and Wales

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The Law of England and Wales Portal

English law is the legal system of England and Wales, and is the basis of common law legal systems used in most Commonwealth countries and the United States (as opposed to civil law or pluralist systems in use in other countries). It was exported to Commonwealth countries while the British Empire was established and maintained, and it forms the basis of the legal systems of most of those countries. England and Wales are constituent countries of the United Kingdom; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems, although in some areas of law there are no differences between the jurisdictions. Whilst Wales has a devolved Assembly, its power to legislate is limited by the Government of Wales Act 2006.

English law is a mixture of common law, legislation passed by the UK Parliament (or subordinate legislation made under delegated authority) and European law. The essence of common law is that it is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent (stare decisis) to the facts before them. A decision of the highest appeal court in England and Wales, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, is binding on every other court in the hierarchy. Common law can be altered by Parliament. The oldest statute currently in force is the Distress Act 1267, part of the Statute of Marlborough. Three sections of Magna Carta, originally signed in 1215 and a landmark in the development of English law, are still in force, but they date to the reissuing of the law in 1297. European law applies in England and Wales because the UK is a member of the European Union, and so the European Court of Justice can direct English and Welsh courts on the meaning of areas of law in which the EU has passed legislation. (more about English law...)

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John Coleridge, the last Chief Justice of the Common Pleas
The Court of Common Pleas, also known as the Common Bench or Common Place, was the second highest common law court in the English legal system until 1880, when it was dissolved. As such, the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas was one of the highest judicial officials in England, behind only the Lord High Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice of the King's (or Queen's) Bench. Initially the position of Chief Justice was not an appointment; of the justices serving in the court, one would become more respected than his peers, and was therefore considered the "chief" justice. The position was formalised in 1272 with the raising of Sir Gilbert of Preston to Chief Justice, and from then on it was considered a formally appointed role similar to the positions of Chief Justice of the King's Bench and Chief Baron of the Exchequer. In 1875 the court was reduced to a division of the High Court of Justice; Alexander Cockburn served as the first Chief Justice of England. The court was dissolved as a body in 1880, when the functions and officials were made part of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice. John Coleridge (pictured), previously Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, served as the first Chief Justice of the fully unified High Court. (more...)

Selected biography

Alfred Denning, Baron Denning (1899–1999) was a British soldier, mathematician, lawyer and judge. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, although his studies were disrupted by his service in the First World War. He then began his legal career, distinguishing himself as a barrister and becoming a King's Counsel in 1938. He became a judge in 1944 with an appointment to the Family Division of the High Court of Justice and was made a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1948 after fewer than five years in the High Court. He became a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 1957 and after five years in the House of Lords returned to the Court of Appeal as Master of the Rolls in 1962, a position he held for twenty years. One of the most publicly known judges thanks to his report on the Profumo Affair, Lord Denning was held in high regard by much of the judiciary, the Bar and the public. In retirement he wrote several books and continued to offer opinions on the state of the common law through his writing and his position in the House of Lords. During his 38 year career as a judge he made large changes to the common law, particularly while in the Court of Appeal. (more...)

Selected case

Abraham Thornton
Ashford v Thornton was an 1818 English legal case in the Court of King's Bench that upheld the right of the defendant, on a private appeal from an acquittal for murder, to trial by battle. In 1817, Abraham Thornton (pictured) was charged with the murder of Mary Ashford. Thornton met Ashford at a dance, and walked with her from the event. The next morning, Ashford was found drowned in a pit, with little outward signs of violence. Although public opinion was heavily against Thornton, the jury quickly acquitted him, and also found him not guilty of rape. Mary's brother, William Ashford, launched an appeal, and Thornton was rearrested. Thornton claimed the right to trial by battle, a medieval usage which had never been repealed by Parliament. Ashford argued that the evidence against Thornton was overwhelming, and that he was thus ineligible to wager battle. The court decided that the evidence against Thornton was not overwhelming, and that trial by battle was a permissible option under law; thus Thornton was granted trial by battle. Ashford declined the offer of battle and Thornton was freed from custody. Appeals such as Ashford's were abolished by statute the following year, and with them the right to trial by battle. Thornton emigrated to the United States, where he died about 1860. (more...)

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The Bench (c. 1758)
Credit: William Hogarth
The Bench (c. 1758)

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Nantwich workhouse
The English Poor Laws were a system of poor relief that developed out of late medieval and Tudor laws before being codified in 1587–98. Legislation was passed in 1536 to deal with the impotent poor, although there is earlier Tudor legislation dealing with the problems caused by vagrants and beggars. The history of the Poor Law in England and Wales is usually divided between two statutes, the "Old Poor Law" passed during the reign of Elizabeth I and the "New Poor Law", passed in 1834, which significantly modified the existing system. The later statute altered it from one which was administered haphazardly at a local parish level to a highly centralised system which encouraged the large scale development of workhouses (example pictured) by Poor Law Unions. The Poor Law system was not formally abolished until the 1948 National Assistance Act, with parts of the law remaining on the statute book until 1967. The Poor Law system fell into decline at the beginning of the 20th century due to several factors, such as introduction of the Liberal welfare reforms and the availability of other sources of assistance from friendly societies and trade unions, as well as piecemeal reforms which bypassed the Poor Law system. (more...)

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W. S. Gilbert, librettist of Iolanthe, in which the Lord Chancellor sings this song

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