The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) consists of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. A monarch is a sovereign Head of State whose duties, functions, and powers are conscribed by convention, one of which being politically neutral.
England and Wales have a common legal system that combines both the passing of legislation and the creation of precedents through case law. Laws are established by the passing of legislation by Parliament which consists of three central elements:
- The “Monarch”;
- The House of Commons; and
- The House of Lords.
The House of Commons is directly elected by the people in which the Prime Minister is traditionally a member of this House. The Court System and case law are controlled by the judiciary which is completely independent of Parliament.
Legislation is a law or a set of laws that have been passed by Parliament. The word is also used to describe the act of making new law.
The principal legislature is the UK Parliament based in London. This is the only body that has the power to pass laws that apply in all four countries. The main business of Parliament takes place in the two Houses. Generally, the decisions made in one House have to be approved by the other.
The House of Commons has 650 Members of Parliament (MPs). The UK public elects MPs using a “first-past-the-post” system to represent their interests and concerns in the House of Commons. Each MP represents a defined geographic constituency.
The House of Lords has nearly 800 peers, of whom 600 are formally appointed by the Queen by the advice of the Prime Minister. Other members are people who have inherited aristocratic titles such as “Lord” or “Lady” and senior bishops of the Church of England. Many members continue to be active in their fields and have successful careers in business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health, and public service. They bring this knowledge to their role of examining matters of public interest that affect all UK citizens.
The Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and National Assembly for Wales each have the power to pass laws on devolved matters—meaning that these laws are only applicable in the country in which they were passed.
The legal system of England and Wales is common law. The decisions of the senior appellate courts become part of the law.
A distinction is made between public law and private law. Public law governs the relationship between individual citizens and the state while private law, on the other hand, governs relationships between individuals and private organizations. For practical purposes, the most significant distinction is between civil law and criminal law. Civil law may be defined in opposition to three alternatives:
- Civil as opposed to criminal law.
- Civilas opposed to ecclesiastical or other forms of religious law.
- Civil law as a legal system based on a code of laws (e.g. Code Napoleon developed in France) as opposed to the common law system based on the doctrine of precedent.
Generally, the meaning just depends on the context. A criminal case may be decided in a civil court if that court is a secular rather than a religious one. Although, a murder trial, in the first sense, will not be held in a civil court such as the Chancery Division of the High Court but instead, such a case will be heard in a criminal court such as the Crown Court.