The two main courts dealing with civil cases in England and Wales are the County Court and the High Court. The County Court deals with minor civil matters, while the High Court deals with large or complex civil disputes.
The County Court is a court where legal proceedings begin (known as a ‘first instance court’). It deals with a variety of minor civil matters, including:
landlord and tenant disputes (eg eviction, rent arrears, repairs)
consumer disputes (eg as faulty goods)
personal injury claims where the amount demanded is under £50,000
money claims under £15,000
trusts, mortgages, real property claims
debt problems (eg a creditor seeking payment)
The High Court hears more complex civil cases. It is divided into three divisions:
Family Division: deals with complex family matters such as cases related to minors, defended divorce, wardship, adoption.
Chancery Division: deals with contested wills, administration of estate, appointment of guardians, trusts, deeds, land and mortgages actions, company law, bankruptcy, intellectual property matters.
King’s Bench Division (KBD): deals with large or complex claims for compensation, including defamation and breach of contract. The KBD is divided into specialised courts: the Commercial Court (for bankruptcy and insurance matters), the Admiralty Court (for shipping-related matters), the Administrative Court (for judicial review of decisions made by government bodies) and the Technology and Construction Court (for computer and engineering-related matters).
Alongside the County Courts and the High Court, a Tribunal system handles a wide variety of day-to-day legal issues, such as immigration, asylum or employment. Civil proceedings in tribunals are relatively informal and legal representation by a lawyer is usually not needed. Tribunals operate under a two-tier system:
First-tier Tribunal: hears appeals from citizens against decisions made by government departments
Upper Tribunal: reviews and decides appeals coming from the First-tier tribunal
Court of Appeal
The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal hears appeals against decisions of the County Courts and High Court. You usually have 21 days to appeal against the original decision if you believe that decision was wrong or unfair (for instance, if there was a serious mistake in the ruling or if the court failed to follow the right procedural steps).
Decisions of the Court of Appeal are taken by a majority. The Court may decide to agree with all or part of your appeal, dismiss your appeal or order a retrial.
The Supreme Court is the most senior court in the UK. It is the final court of appeal for all UK civil cases. It hears appeals against decisions made by the Court of Appeal, and in some limited cases, decisions made by the High Court (when the latter has been taken following an appeal).
The Supreme Court hears appeals on arguable points of law of general public importance. Decisions are taken by a majority.
Civil procedure rules
The Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) are a common set of rules governing civil procedure in England and Wales. They ensure civil proceedings are dealt with fairly and efficiently.
Starting an action
Civil proceedings begin when the claimant issues a Claim Form. Within 14 days of receipt of the form, the other party (called the defendant) must reply with a notice of whether they intend to defend the claim or not. Pleadings are drafted by counsels and exchanged between the parties.
Allocation of track
When you bring an action in civil matters, a case manager will look at the case and allocate it to a 'track' depending on the complexity and value of the claim. There are three different tracks:
Small claims track: claims below £10,000 (£1,000 for personal injury claims), for simple legal issues, eg rent arrears. The procedure is simpler; no lawyers are required and usually, the losing party will not pay the other party's legal costs.
Fast track: claims between £10,000 and £25,000 that are capable of being tried within one day.
Multi-track: claims over £25,000, or for lesser sums if complex points of law are involved.
The English legal system is an adversarial system, whereby the parties lead the legal dispute, and the judge tries to determine the truth but does not have the power to investigate the case. That means the parties have to present their arguments and submit evidence to the judge. To do so, they must disclose all documents they seek to rely on, as well as documents that support the other party's case. They can also call and question witnesses and experts to support their claim.
Witness statements: if a party wants to provide oral evidence from a witness in court, they must record that evidence in a written witness statement. The statement must be certified to be true by the witness, and the witness may be cross-examined (i.e. questioned) by the other party's lawyer at trial.
Expert evidence: upon authorisation of the court, the parties can ask for an independent expert’s opinion on certain issues.
Judgements may be given immediately after the trial or reserved to a later date if the judge decides so. Usually, the losing party has to pay for the legal costs incurred by the winning party.
Ask a lawyer if you wish to start civil legal proceedings.