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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18th-century drawing of the first Marshalsea prison
The Marshalsea was a prison on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark, now part of London. From at least 1329 until it closed in 1842, it housed men under court martial for crimes at sea, including "unnatural crimes", political figures and intellectuals accused of sedition or other inappropriate behaviour, and—most famously—London's debtors, the length of their stay determined largely by the whim of their creditors. Run privately for profit, as were all prisons in England until the 19th century, the Marshalsea looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned largely as an extortion racket. For prisoners who could afford the fees, it came with access to a bar, shop, and restaurant, and the crucial privilege of being allowed to leave the prison during the day, which meant debtors could earn money to pay off their creditors. Everyone else was crammed into one of nine small rooms with dozens of others, possibly for decades for the most modest of debts, which increased as unpaid prison fees accumulated. The prison became known around the world during the 19th century through the writings of the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there in 1824 for a debt of £40 and 10 shillings. Much of it was demolished in the 1870s, though some of its buildings were used into the 20th century. (more...)

Selected biography

Statue of Hubert Walter

Hubert Walter (circa 1160 – 1205) was an influential royal adviser in the late 12th and early 13th centuries in the positions of chief justiciar of England, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord Chancellor. As chancellor (1199–1205), Walter began the keeping of the Charter Roll, a record of all charters issued by the chancery. Walter was not noted for his holiness in life or learning, but historians have judged him one of the most outstanding government ministers in English history. Walter owed his early advancement to his uncle Ranulf de Glanvill, who helped him become a clerk of the Exchequer. Walter was elected Bishop of Salisbury shortly after the accession of King Henry's son Richard I to the throne of England. He accompanied King Richard on the Third Crusade, and was involved in raising Richard's ransom after the king was captured in Germany. As a reward for his faithful service, Walter was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1193. He also served as Richard's justiciar until 1198, and set up a system which was the precursor for the modern justices of the peace, based on selecting four knights in each hundred to administer justice. (more...)

Selected case

Pepper (Inspector of Taxes) v Hart (decided in 1992) is a landmark decision of the House of Lords on the use of legislative history in statutory interpretation. It established the principle that when primary legislation is ambiguous, the court may sometimes refer to statements made in the House of Commons or House of Lords in an attempt to interpret it. Lord Mackay, dissenting, argued that Hansard should not be considered admissible evidence due to the time and expense involved in a lawyer having to look up every debate and discussion on a particular statute when giving legal advice or preparing a case. The decision met a mixed reception. While the judiciary were cautiously accepting, legal academics argued that it violated rules of evidence, damaged the separation of powers between the executive and Parliament and caused additional expense in cases. There have been several subsequent judicial decisions that limit the precedent, preventing the use of Hansard as a source of law, in criminal law cases or to overrule precedent set prior to Pepper except in exceptional circumstances. (more...)

Selected picture

Thomas More was a leading counsellor to Henry VIII and served as Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. He was imprisoned and beheaded in 1535 after he had fallen out of favour with the king over his refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy 1534.
Credit: Hans Holbein the Younger
Thomas More was a leading counsellor to Henry VIII and served as Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. He was imprisoned and beheaded in 1535 after he had fallen out of favour with the king over his refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy 1534.

Selected legislation

The Statute of Monopolies was an Act of the Parliament of England notable as the first statutory expression of English patent law. Patents evolved from letters patent, issued by the monarch to grant monopolies over particular industries to skilled individuals with new techniques. Originally intended to strengthen England's economy by making it self-sufficient and promoting new industries, the system gradually became seen as a way to raise money (through charging patent-holders) without having to incur the public unpopularity of a tax. Elizabeth I was a great abuser of the system, issuing patents for common commodities such as starch and salt. Unrest eventually persuaded her to turn the administration of patents over to the common law courts, but her successor, James I, was even more abusive. Despite a committee established to investigate grievances and excesses, Parliament made several efforts to further curtail the monarch's power. The result was the Statute of Monopolies, passed on 25 May 1624. The statute repealed all past and future patents and monopolies, except those created in the future over completely novel inventions. Seen as a key moment in the evolution of patent law, the statute (which has been replaced by later legislation) has also been described as "one of the landmarks in the transition of [England's] economy from the feudal to the capitalist". (more...)

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From Wikipedia's "Did You Know" archives:

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Lord Scarman, in Why Britain Needs a Written Constitution (1992)

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