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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The Instrument of Abdication signed by Edward VIII and his three brothers
In 1936, a constitutional crisis in the British Empire was caused by King-Emperor Edward VIII's proposal to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite. The marriage was opposed by the King's governments in the United Kingdom and the autonomous Dominions of the British Commonwealth. Religious, legal, political, and moral objections were raised. Mrs Simpson was perceived to be an unsuitable consort because of her two failed marriages, and it was widely assumed by the Establishment that she was driven by love of money or position rather than love for the King. Despite the opposition, Edward declared that he loved Mrs Simpson and intended to marry her whether the governments approved or not. The widespread unwillingness to accept Mrs Simpson as the King's consort, and the King's refusal to give her up, led to Edward's abdication in December 1936. He remains the only British monarch to have voluntarily renounced the throne since the Anglo-Saxon period. (more...)

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William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705–1793) was a British barrister, politician and judge noted for his reform of English law. Born to Scottish nobility, he was educated in Perth, Scotland and at Westminster School, London. He entered Christ Church, Oxford, in May 1723, and graduated four years later. Returning to London from Oxford, he was called to the Bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1730, and quickly gained a reputation as an excellent barrister. He became involved in politics in 1742, beginning with his election as MP for Boroughbridge, and appointment as Solicitor General. In the absence of a strong Attorney General, he became the main spokesman for the government in the House of Commons, and was described as "beyond comparison the best speaker" in the House of Commons. With the promotion of Sir Dudley Ryder to Lord Chief Justice in 1754, he became Attorney General, and when Ryder unexpectedly died several months later, he took his place as Chief Justice. He modernised both English law and the English courts system, and has been called the founder of English commercial law. He is perhaps best known for his judgment in Somersett's Case, where he held that slavery was unlawful in England. (more...)

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Gyles v Wilcox was a decision in 1740 of the Court of Chancery of England that established the doctrine of fair abridgement, which would later evolve into the concept of fair use. The case concerned Fletcher Gyles, a bookseller who had published a copy of Matthew Hale's Pleas of the Crown. Soon after the initial publication, the publishers Wilcox and Nutt hired a writer named Barrow to abridge the book, and repackaged it as Modern Crown Law. Gyles sued for a stay on the book's publishing, claiming his rights under the Statute of Anne had been infringed. The main issues in the case were whether or not abridgements of a work were inherently pirated copies, or whether they could qualify as a separate, new work. Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, ruled that abridgements fell under two categories: "true abridgements" and "coloured shortenings". True abridgements presented a true effort on the part of the editor, and by this effort, constituted a new work which did not infringe upon the copyright of the original. He ruled that Modern Crown Law was not a true abridgement, but merely a piracy intending to circumvent the law. The case established the common law doctrine of fair abridgement, and recognised the author's right to a work through the nature of the labour it took to produce it, shifting copyright away from publishing rights and towards the idea of serving the greater good by encouraging the production of new, useful works. (more...)

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Selected legislation

The Obscene Publications Act 1959 is an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament that significantly reformed the law related to obscenity. Before the Act, the law on publishing obscene materials was governed by the common law case of R v Hicklin, which had no exceptions for artistic merit or the public good. During the 1950s, the Society of Authors recommended reform of the existing law, submitting a draft bill to the Home Office in February 1955. After several failed attempts, a bill was introduced to Parliament by Roy Jenkins and given the Royal Assent on 29 July 1959, coming into force on 29 August 1959. With the committee consisting of both censors and reformers, reform of the law was limited, with several extensions to police powers included in the final version. The Act created a new offence for publishing obscene material, replacing the previous common law offence of obscene libel, and also allows Justices of the Peace to issue warrants for the police to seize such materials. At the same time it created two defences; firstly, the defence of innocent dissemination, and secondly the defence of public good. The Act (which is still in force) has been used in several high-profile cases, such as the trials of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover and Oz for the Schoolkids OZ issue, but more recently has been rarely used despite the increasing amount of "obscene" material available to the general public. (more...)

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Mervyn Griffith-Jones, prosecuting counsel, during his speech to the jury in the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial (1960)

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