Jurisdiction and competence of the civil courts in England


Introduction to the competence of courts in England

law does not differ from other systems of law in its distinction between civil law and criminal law.

English civil law includes C law, the law of tort, family law and the law of property.
It governs the relation «rights and duties» of individuals and the disputes between individuals. In most civil cases, the plaintiff sues the defendant to obtain damages for that he suffered. Such a lawsuit is judged before the civil court and its jurisdiction.

English criminal law on the contrary is the State’s response to violation and contravention of the law.
In the extent where the State must preserve public order, it is the duty of the State to punish all offenses and all those who break the peace.
Thus, the State prosecutes the accused who if they are found guilty will be sentenced to pay a fine or to serve a prison sentence.
The criminal courts have jurisdiction over such criminal cases.

The problem of English law is that some courts have jurisdiction both over civil cases and criminal cases.

Competence of the civil courts.

a) The magistrate’s courts.
The magistrate’s courts are for the most part composed of laymen, i.e. non professional judges who volontary accept to sit as part time judges for minor cases.
The civil jurisdiction of a magistrate’s court is limited. They decide in actions in recovery, epecially for such debts to official or quasi-official bodies as income tax, national insurance contribution, water, gas or electrical charges.

They also decide domestic cases such as separation, maintenance (pension alimentaire), affiliation, gardianship of infants (tutelle) and adoptions.
Decisions of the magistrate’s courts in such dispute can be appealed against before the family division of the High Court of Justice.

The magistrate’s court also have jurisdiction over liquor licences, over betting licences and over theatre licences.
For licences, appeals against the decision of the magistrate’s court must be brought before the Crown Court.

b) The county courts.

Most disputes when the amount at state does not exceed £5000.

Action in recovery of land when the net taxable value of the land does not exceed £10 000

Disputes to which equity applies such as dispute about trust, mortgages or partnership. The amount at state does not exceed £30 000.

Litigious probate matters when the amount at state (property of the deceased) does not exceed £30 000.

Undefended divorces and related problems of maintenance and custody (garde) and also under the 1984 Matrimonial and Family Proceeding Act, some defended divorces.

Disputes relating to company winding-ups when the paid up capital does not exceed £ 15 000

Disputes about prizes when the amount claimed does not exceed £5 000 and about salvage when the amount does not exceed £15 000.

Disputes relative to consumer credits when the amount does not exceed £15 000.

All cases normally under the jurisdiction of the High Court (i.e. when the amount at state exceeds the above-mentioned sums). Also when, the parties to limit the costs and delays agree to have the case judged by a county court.

Cases of bankruptcy without any limitation.

Disputes relating to fair trading regulation.

Cases of hand registration.

Dispute with local government authorities.

Race relations cases.

Cases of river pollution.

All cases relating to rents (bill) and to hire-purchases (location-ventes) for which the county courts have exclusive jurisdiction.

Normally, the jurisdiction of the county courts is limited to the county itself, except for cases of bankruptcy.
Except for bankruptcy, appeals of points of law against a county court decision go directly before the civil division of a court of appeal.
For bankruptcy, cases such as appeals must be brought before the Chancery dividion of the court.

c) The High Court of Justice (HCJ).

The HCJ was instituted by the Judicature Acts (1873-1875).
In theory, there is only one HCJ located in London.
In practise, there are sessions in the provinces in some 25 provincial trial centers called first tier centers of the Crown Court located in the main provincial towns.

The HCJ is composed of three divisions.

The Queen’s bench division.

The Chancery division.

The family division.

It normally judges as a first instance jurisdiction, but it can also be appelate jurisdiction to judge appeals against DC or inferior courts.

Although in theory, any division of the HCJ can have jurisdiction over any type of case.
In practise each division is specialized and has its specificity.

This specialisation was confirmed by the Supreme Court Act of 1981 which listed the specific jurisdiction of each division of the HCJ.


The Queen’s bench division.

The Queen’s bench division has a very wide jurisdiction both original and appelate and both civil and criminal.

As an original jurisdiction, it has unlimited jurisdiction over all civil cases.
It judges most of the time property cases, cases of break of contract, cases of break of duty (responsabilité extra contractuelle) and cases of tort.

2) The Chancery division (CD).

The CD is the direct heir (héritier) to the medieval court of chancery.
It has jurisdiction only over civil matters. It sits mainly as a first instance court with a single judge.
Its jurisdiction has been confirmed by the Supreme Court Act of 1981.
It is very wide and covers :

The sail and partition of land as well as charges on lander property.

Administration of the estate of deceased persons and litigeous probate matters.

Execution of trusts.

The redemption and forclosure of mortgages.


Dissolution of partnerships.

The specific performance, rectification, setting aside and rescission of contracts.

Patents, trade marks, registered designs and copyrights.

Appointment of gardians.

More recent legislation has also given the Chancery division jurisdiction over :

1) Disputes rel ating to revenue claims.
2) Towns and country planning problems.
3) Landslord and tenant disputes.

Mental Health Act 1983 gave the Chancery jurisdiction over disputes rela ting to the estate of mental patients.

Although the Chancery division is mainly an original jurisdiction it can sometimes sit as an appelate court.

With a single judge, it can hear income taxes appeals against decisions of the Commission of England’s revenue.

With two judges, it can sit as divisional court of the Chancery division and hear appeals against decisions of the court in case of bankruptcy and land registration.

3. The family division.

The family division has jurisdiction over all domestic and family cases.
Its jurisdiction was confirmed by the 1981 Supreme Court Act.

Under the Supreme Court Act of 1981 :The family division has jurisdiction over :

All matrimonial cases for which it is empowered to grant decrees of divorce, decrees of nullity (annulation de mariage) or decrees of judicial separation.

All cases related to children such as cases of legitimacy, cases of custody or guardianship (tutelle), of maintenance and right of access (droit de visite), of affiliation and cases of adoption.

It is also competent for non litigious probate matters

Applications (demandes) for marriage of a minor.

The family division is a first instance court but it can hear appeals of the county courts in affiliation cases, adoption cases or questions of maintenance.

The court of appeal: civil division. The court of appeal as a whole is composed of the Lords High Chancellor, the Master of the Rolls and 23 Lords Justice of appeal.
In theory it is presided over by the Lord Chancellor but in practice by the Master of the Rolls.
Under the Supreme Court Act of 1981, the number of the Lords Justice of appeal cannot exceed 23.
The division of the Court of appeal into the Civil Division and the Criminal division da