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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Photograph of a replica of the Halifax Gibbet
The Halifax Gibbet was an early guillotine, or decapitating machine, used in the town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. It was probably installed some time during the 16th century as an alternative to beheading by axe or sword. Halifax was once part of the Manor of Wakefield, where ancient custom and law gave the Lord of the Manor the authority to execute summarily by decapitation any thief caught with stolen goods to the value of 13½ pence or more, or who confessed to having stolen goods of at least that value. The device consisted of an axe head fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two 15-foot (4.6 m) tall uprights, mounted on a stone base about 4 feet (1.2 m) high. A rope attached to the block ran over a pulley, allowing it to be raised, after which the rope was secured by attaching it to a pin in the base. The block carrying the axe was then released either by withdrawing the pin or by cutting the rope once the victim was in place. The date of the gibbet's installation is uncertain, so it cannot be determined with any accuracy how many were executed using the Halifax Gibbet. By 1650, public opinion considered beheading to be an overly severe punishment for petty theft; use of the gibbet was forbidden by Oliver Cromwell, and the structure was dismantled. The stone base was rediscovered and preserved in about 1840, and a non-working replica was erected on the site in 1974. (more...)

Selected biography

William Garrow
Sir William Garrow (1760–1840) was a British barrister, politician and judge known for his indirect reform of the advocacy system, which helped usher in the adversarial court system used in most common law nations today. He introduced the phrase "innocent until proven guilty", insisting that defendants' accusers and their evidence be thoroughly tested in court. Garrow was called to the Bar in 1783 and quickly established a reputation as a criminal law barrister, particularly for the defendants. He was returned to Parliament in 1805 for Gatton, a rotten borough, and became Solicitor General in 1812, then Attorney General a year later. In 1817 he was made a Baron of the Exchequer and Serjeant-at-Law, forcing his resignation from Parliament, and he spent the next 15 years as a judge. He was not noted as particularly successful in the commercial cases the Exchequer specialised in, but when on Assize used his criminal law knowledge from his years at the Bar to great effect. His work was cited as recently as 1982 in the Supreme Court of Canada and 2006 in the Irish Court of Criminal Appeal. In 2009, BBC One broadcast Garrow's Law, a four-part fictionalised drama of Garrow's first days in the Old Bailey. (more...)

Selected case

Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc is a case in English tort law that established the principle that claims under nuisance and Rylands v Fletcher must include a requirement that the damage be foreseeable. The Cambridge Water Company were a company responsible for providing potable water to the inhabitants of Cambridge and the surrounding areas. In 1976, they purchased a borehole outside Sawston to deal with rising demand. In 1980, a European Directive was issued requiring nations of the European Community to establish standards on the presence of perchloroethene (PCE) in water, which the United Kingdom did in 1982. It was found that the Sawston borehole was contaminated with PCE that had originated in a tannery owned by Eastern Counties Leather. Prior to 1980, there was no knowledge that PCE should be avoided or that it could cause harm. The High Court of Justice dismissed the water company's claim because the harm was not foreseeable. The decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal, but restored by the House of Lords in 1993. The decision in Cambridge Water Co made an immediate change to the law, for the first time requiring foreseeability of harm to be considered in cases brought under Rylands v Fletcher and the general tort of nuisance. The decision has been criticised by academics, who highlight flaws in wording which leave parts of the judgment ambiguous and a selective assessment of Rylands that ignores outside influences. (more...)

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

Selected legislation

The Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that reformed the auxiliary forces of the British Army by transferring existing Volunteer and Yeomanry units into a new Territorial Force; and disbanding the Militia to form a new Special Reserve of the Regular Army. This reorganisation formed a major part of the Haldane Reforms, named after the creator of the Act, Richard Haldane. The Act followed the South African War of 1899-1902, which had reinforced the idea that the regular Army was not capable of fighting a prolonged full-scale war without significant assistance. There had been no thought before the war to using auxiliary forces overseas; in the event, volunteers had been used on an ad-hoc basis, and a new auxiliary arm (the Imperial Yeomanry) was formed to provide specialist troops, but it was clear that a more effective system was required in future. A number of attempts at reform under the Conservative government of 1901-1905 had failed to make any lasting changes to the system, and left the auxiliary forces disorganised and demoralised. In December 1905, Haldane was appointed as Secretary of State for War, and immediately set about reforming the Army to best prepare it for an intervention in a European war. The Act was repealed in 1966. (more...)

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Lord Denning, discussing contract clauses (in the days before the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977) in Spurling v Bradshaw (1956)

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