Who does what in the English and Welsh Legal System Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Who does what in the English and Welsh Legal System

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Both England and Wales have a large number of people involved with the law in different ways. These range all the way from the humble juror to the Queen herself, each vital in keeping the legal cogs moving. Read on to find out who does what.


A lawyer is anyone who practises law. That includes solicitors, barristers, and legal executives. That means that a solicitor is a lawyer and a barrister is also a lawyer. Lawyers often get a bad press and this is often expressed in countless anti-lawyer jokes.


Solicitors are lawyers who work in litigation1, and work relating to business outside of court.

In litigation solicitors generally advise clients, prepare cases and advocate2 in the lower courts3. Only recently have solicitors been able to present their own cases in court. Traditionally the solicitor provided details of their client's case to a barrister who actually advocated in court.

The second and larger part of a solicitors work is all the nitty gritty legal work outside of court in a range of different areas, such as:

  • commercial transactions
  • land
  • corporate matters
  • share and property dealings
  • property conveyancing
  • family and civil matters
  • making wills
  • advising on tax matters
  • estates
  • solicitors often give general and specialist legal advice


Barristers are legal advisers and advocates in the higher courts4. Advocating cases in court means that barristers have to be able to speak and think quickly on their feet as the evidence develops. The mission statement of a barrister would be to make sure all points of law, and facts that favour their client's case, are brought to the court's attention and that justice is done.

Possibly the most famous fictional barrister is Rumpole of the Bailey, a rather portly, irreverent barrister, partial to small cigars, cheap claret and spouting poetry at every opportunity.

Queen's Counsel (QC)

Some of the top barristers who are marked out as outstanding are made Queen's Counsel5. The QCs, as they are known, are usually instructed in serious or complex cases. Most senior judges were once QCs. A barrister Member of Parliament who becomes a Minister is automatically made a QC.

The differences between a solicitor and a barrister

Solicitors are instructed what to do by the general public, but a barrister is 'briefed' or instructed by the solicitor who has first contact with the client. Barristers have little or no contact with members of the public. A barrister however is generally independent of a solicitor and can make their own decisions on how to conduct a case.

Although there are exceptions to both, generally solicitors work in the lower courts and barristers in the higher courts. There are far fewer barristers than there are solicitors.

The regulatory and representative body for solicitors in England and Wales is The Law Society. The regulatory and representative body for barristers6 in England and Wales is The Bar Council.

Solicitors are usually self-employed, in partnerships, or organised into firms of varying sizes. Solicitors also work in local government, law centres, the civil service and in commerce and industry. Barristers are essentially self-employed but sometimes share an office called a chamber.

Legal Executives

Legal Executives are legally qualified professionals employed largely by solicitors and usually specialising in a given area of law. The professional body for Legal Executives is the Institute of Legal Executives.

The Monarch

The Queen is the Head of State, the head of the executive7, judiciary8 and legislature9. The Queen has in principle a lot of power, but in fact acts in a constitutional role with her actions governed by convention. The Monarch is entitled to advise, warn, and encourage Ministers. The Palace of Westminster, containing the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is a Royal Palace and everything that is done there is in the Crown's name, as the Queen gives assent to all new legislation.

The Prime Minister and the Government

The Government is led by the Prime Minister who is appointed by the Queen. Royal Prerogative10 is exercised not by the Queen but by the Prime Minister in her name. The Prime Minister normally holds a majority of the party members in the House of Commons. The Government is sometimes called the 'executive' because it is responsible for carrying out or executing the laws of the country. The Government can propose laws, in the form of bills, but does not actually make new laws, as this is the work of Parliament as a whole.

Lay Magistrates (Justices of the Peace)

Lay magistrates11 sit on a magistrates' court hearing mainly criminal cases. The majority of criminals are heard in this type of court.

Lay magistrates are 'lay' because they are ordinary people. They don't have any formal legal training and don't need any previous experience in the legal system to do the job, but they do receive practical training. They are advised by law clerks who are qualified on law and procedure. These magistrates ensure that the local community is involved, and come from a range of backgrounds.

They sit in groups of three, as a bench, but with shortages they sometimes sit in twos. It is not lawful for them to sit alone. On a bench at least one has to have had training in leading the bench.

Lay magistrates are not paid but they may claim expenses and an allowance for loss of earnings.

The Judges

A judge can hear both criminal12 and civil13 cases. A judge applies the current law and decisions made can sometimes set legal precedents14. When there is a jury they are there to advise on matters of the law, and sum up with evidence provided by the defence and prosecution teams. Judges also pass sentence.

Sometimes judges are joined by another judge and jury, a jury or just sit there all alone. Different types of judges have differing judicial status. The lower-level judges are known as 'Inferior Judges' and the higher-level judges are known as 'Superior Judges.'

To be a judge you have to already be an experienced lawyer. Judges are people at the top of the tree who have all the necessary legal training.

Judges are appointed by the Lord Chancellor. There is an interview and the appointment is usually for life. Inferior Judges can be removed on the grounds of incapability or misbehaviour15, but Superior Judges can only be removed following a motion of both Houses of Parliament16.

Superior Judges

The High Court has High Court Judges and is divided into three divisions headed by different people. The Queen's Bench Division is headed by the Lord Chief Justice, the Chancery Division is headed in name only by the Lord Chancellor but in reality by the Vice Chancellor, and the Family Division is headed by the President of the Family Division.

The Court of Appeal, which is divided into two divisions, has Lord Justices of Appeal who are senior judges. The Civil Division is headed by the Master of the Rolls, and the Criminal Division is headed by the Lord Chief Justice.

Inferior Judges

Inferior Judges are Circuit Judges, District Judges and other Judicial Officers. Circuit Judges hear cases in the Crown Courts and County Courts. The Crown Courts are divided into six 'circuits' throughout England and Wales. Crown Courts are also heard by Recorders, who are barristers paid to act part-time as a Circuit Judge.

District Judges work in magistrates' courts but sit alone. Until 2000, these District Judges were known as Stipendiary magistrates, but were renamed to recognise their professional status. They are legally qualified, and salaried. Before becoming District Judges most were either barristers or court clerks, and have to have at least seven years legal experience.

The Jury

The jury are the foot soldiers of the legal system and are crucial to the legal process. Twelve people, between the age of 18 and 70, are summoned at random from the public using the electoral register for each case.

The jury, or jurors', job is to listen to all the facts of a case and give a verdict or decision on its outcome. The jury should all agree on a verdict, but if a verdict isn't unanimous then a majority decision is all right as well.

The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (The Law Lords)

The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary are more commonly called 'The Law Lords.' The Law Lords are the 12 judges who are the final court of appeal for England and Wales. They are the senior judicial members sitting in the House of Lords to decide appeals which usually come from the Court of Appeal, and sometimes straight from the High Court. The Law Lords sit in benches of five per case, called an Appellate committee17.

They are appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, and given Life Peerages18 so that they can carry out the judicial work of the House of Lords. 'In Ordinary' means that they are salaried members19 of the Lords working full-time at the judicial business of the House.

Lord Chancellor (and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)

The Lord Chancellor is the head of the judiciary in England and Wales, a member of the Government at cabinet level, and traditionally the Speaker20 of the House of Lords.

As the head of the judiciary the Lord Chancellor is responsible for the administration of courts and the legal system. The Lord Chancellor is also the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, and responsible for the development and implementation of Government policy on the legal system.

The Attorney General and the Solicitor General

The Attorney General assisted by a deputy known as the Solicitor General are the government's principal law advisers. They are usually members of parliament, known as law officers, and head the Legal Secretariat.

The Law officers deal with questions of law that arise on government bills and legal policy. They advise on international and domestic litigation involving the Government, as well as with questions that arise in connection with the European Community and international law.

Law Academics

These are people who think about the law, and teach the law.

Legal Interest and Pressure Groups

These are groups of people who spend lots of time trying to affect the law, for example Amnesty International.

The European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice advises on the interpretation of the European Community law and can take action against infringement. It can also hear appeals.

Government-proposed changes to the Legal System

At the time of writing this entry the Government had put forward proposals to separate the judiciary from the Government, but there is considerable opposition to this in the House of Lords. The Government plans involve the setting up a new Supreme Court in place of the Law Lords, as the highest court of appeal. The Lord Chancellor would be replaced as head of the judiciary by the Lord Chief Justice, allowing the Lord Chancellor to concentrate on the Department of Constitutional affairs as a normal minister. A new method of appointing judges has also been proposed also separating the process from the Government.

1Litigation is a legal proceeding in a court.2To advocate is to present cases to court.3The lower courts are the Magistrates' Court and the county courts.4High Court, Crown Court, and the Courts of Appeal, and House of Lords.5Being made Queen's Counsel is called 'taking silk'.6A barrister gets his or her name from the process of being called to the bar during their training.7Executive means the Government.8The word judiciary means the Legal System.9Legislature refers to the people who make laws.10Royal Prerogative means the powers of the Crown.11Also known as Justices of the Peace (JP's).12Criminal cases involve charges being brought against individuals or organisations, for example rape or assault.13Civil cases involve disputes between individuals or organisations, for example eviction or divorce.14A legal precedent is a decision which serves as a rule for future decisions in similar cases.15This has only happened once, in 1983, when a Circuit Judge pleaded guilty to several charges of smuggling.16This has never happened.17Appellate means to hear an appeal.18The title Peer is given to those in the House of Lords, and a life Peerage is for their lifetime only as opposed to a Hereditary Peerage.19The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary are paid from the 'Ordinary' Consolidated Fund in the Exchequer, rather than from the House of Lords fund.20The Speaker acts as the chairman during debates and is responsible for ensuring the rules of the House are followed.

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