History of the English Legal System
English law refers to the legal system of England and Wales which is the also, the basis of common law in Ireland and other Commonwealth countries.
Justice in ancient England both under the Anglo-Saxon regime and thereafter the Norman invasion, 1066 was delivered through a mix of local and royal courts. The local courts were presided over by a Lord or one of his stewards while the King’s court – the Curia Regis, was presided over by the King himself, and the royal courts began to emerge from the same. However, over a period of time they began to usurp the jurisdiction of the local courts. Under the Norman’s the practice of assizes was started by virtue of which judges were send across the country to hear cases locally. This laid the foundation for a common law to be applied to the whole country as it enabled the judges, over a period of 200 years, to take the least local laws and apply them throughout the land. This led to the establishment of common law courts. However, in course of time the remedies offered by the common law courts proved to be inadequate. The litigants in these cases petitioned the King as the fountain head of justice for appropriate relief. Due to ever increasing petitions, the King finally established the Court of Chancery administered by the King’s Chancellor adjudicating claims on the basis of equity.
Rule of English Law
The British Constitution is founded on the principle of rule of law. While C.J Edward Coke introduced this term to the world of legal terminology but it was essentially A.V. Dicey who propounded this doctrine and assigned to it several meanings. Its primary meaning is that everything should be done according to law or in other words no action whatsoever can challenge the supremacy of law. The secondary meaning is that Government’s discretionary power should be restricted by making them operate within a framework of recognized rules and principles. A third meaning of rule of law is that disputes as to the legality of acts of the government are to be decided by judges who are independent of the executive. To understand the concept of Rule of Law, which serves as the foundation of most legal systems of modern world, it is pertinent to appreciate the three features of this doctrine i.e. supremacy of law, equality before law and predominance of legal spirit.
The study of Rule of law in context of separation of powers of the organs of state especially the legislature and the judiciary, although it has never been applied in England in strict sense. As we all know, The British Parliament designed in accordance to Westminster model is a combination of House of Lords, House of Commons and the Queen commands as a supreme legislative body. Whereas, the supreme court of England maintains the stand of independent judiciary. Separation of powers, in simple words would mean that each organ can function without the influence of another. For instance, parliament is restricted from commenting on conduct of judges or any case pending before the judiciary whereas on the other hand the members of judiciary no longer have the privilege to amend the Bills laid down in Parliament. But since there is no strict application, the organs reserve the right to maintain checks and balances. It is in this sense only that the British Constitution though largely unwritten, is firmly based upon the principle of separation of powers. Thus, the exercise of the sovereignty of the British Parliament is also, subject to rule of law, although to a limited extent.
Common Law and Equity
The law of England may be said to be composed of three important elements: common law, equity and legislation or statute law. In simple words, common law may be defined as the part of English law derived from customs and judicial precedents and is not based on statutes. As such, in the absence of codified legislations, laws made by judges of common law courts based on common sense of reasoning and common customs that were recognized by the judges in their judgments came to formulate the law of the land known as common law. This is why it is also, known as law by precedent.
Due to inadequacy of effective redress available to the litigants in the King’s Court, the King through his Chancellor set-up a court known as the Court of Chancery, to provide redress in such cases. This laid the foundation for the development of law based on equity. It was based on the principle that when common law remedies would prove inadequate to grant relief in a particular case, the Court would grant relief based on equitable principles. It basically means a set of legal principles which supplement strict rules of law where their application would cause unwarranted injustice to either party. It is usually said to mitigate the rigour of common law, as it allows the courts to use its discretion and apply natural law in order to render justice more effectively. As such, it is also, important to note that in cases of conflict or variance between rules of equity and the rules of common law, the rules of equity should prevail. One of the important principles of equity is: he who comes to equity must come with clean hands. This means that a person seeking equitable relief should not have contributed to his injury or acted unjustly in any manner in relation to his injury or the defendant.
In the modern system of English law, statute law forms an indispensable part of the legal system. It is the most important source of law and takes precedence even over Common law. Common law can be changed by legislation, but cannot override or change statutes. In simple words, statute refers to a set of codified laws which are passed by legislatures. They are different from judge-made common laws in the sense that they are enacted to deal with specific situations or to govern a particular aspect of society. The legislature has the power to formulate laws relating to any aspect on which they have the authority to govern. For example, the Companies Act, 2006 is an act of the Parliament of United kingdom which forms the primary source of UK Company Law.
Statutory interpretation usually, refers to the process of interpreting legislation in the light of a factual scenario. It refers to certain set of principles developed by courts to interpret statutes. Some statutes take the aid of simple words with straightforward meaning to serve its object. In such case, interpretation does not pose any serious problem. However, when the Parliament enacts legislation, it is not possible to capture all the circumstances which may arise out of the same. As such, there may be ambiguity or vagueness that arises from the words used in the legislation. This is where the art of statutory interpretation applies. The judiciary through the aid of interpretation seeks to reconcile the legislative intent behind the enactment with the situations such legislation seeks to address. There are four primary rules of interpretation, the literal rule, the golden rule, the mischief rule and the purposive approach.
One of the difficulties that are faced by English courts while interpreting statues is perhaps where there is no assistance provided by treaties. This can be said as the drawback of not having a written constitution as there remains uncertainties with regard to legality of other statutes. Even if courts step forward to apply common law principles or ordinary literal meaning, there will exist a conflict as to choice of which principle of interpretation should the court lean on. Although there has been some success in this regard by development of presumptions that are applicable in case there can be two different interpretations of same statute.
So by this we come to understand that the words used in a statute, in so far as they are unambiguous, are the greatest reflection of the legislative intent. In this regard, two canons of interpretation are very important. First, the courts must seek to ascertain the legislative intent as it is only then that it can effectuate the purpose of the law. Secondly, an interpretation that suppresses any absurdity or ambiguity in the law is to be adopted.
“No Act of Parliament can be unconstitutional, for the law of the land knows not the word or the idea.” A constitution refers to a general covenant by virtue of which the spheres of influence of the government and its organs stand defined in relation to the state. The British Constitution is unwritten and as such it has not yet been codified. Most democracies of the world are governed by a codified constitution. In this sense, the British system is unique. Constitutional experts in England are of the opinion that an understanding of what the British Constitution involves entails a thorough analysis of several sources such as the Acts of Parliament, treatises, law of the European Union, Common law, Conventions, Royal Prerogatives and work of authority. In the British Constitution, power flows to the respective organs of the Government from the Crown. As such, one of its unique features is the arbitrary and unaccounted nature of power of the Government. However, the Crown although nominally, retains four key constitutional powers like the appointment of the Prime Minister, the power to dissolve the Parliament, the power to dismiss the Government and the power to withhold royal assent to legislation passed by the Houses of Parliament.
The Court system of a country usually refers to the system of law courts that administer justice and constitute the judicial branch of the government. It is important to note that the English court system is a complex structure of different courts adjudicating upon respective matters and sometimes even over conflicting claims. Therefore, the following chart is presented for a simplified understanding of the English court system.
Until October 2009, the final court of appeal for civil and criminal cases from England and Wales was the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. However, the Supreme Court has now replaced it as the highest court in the United Kingdom. The Court of Appeal has only appellate jurisdiction for both civil and criminal cases. The High Court of Justice and the Crown Court have the power to exercise both appellate and original jurisdiction.