- legal system
In Britain, for historical reasons, the system of law used in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales, with Northern Ireland law being similar to that in England. When making decisions Scottish courts look for an appropriate general principle and apply it to a particular situation. English law relies on case law, a collection of previous decisions, called precedents. English courts look at precedents for the case being tried and make a similar judgement. A basic principle of law in Britain is that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty, so it is the job of the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant (= the person accused) has broken the law as stated in the charge. If this cannot be proved the person must be acquitted (= allowed to go free, with no blame attached).British law is divided into civil law which concerns disagreements between individuals about matters such as business contracts, and criminal law which deals with offences that involve harm to a person resulting from somebody breaking the law. In civil cases, the plaintiff (= the person who claims to have been wronged) brings an action against the defendant in the hope of winning damages (= a financial payment) or an injunction (= a court order preventing the defendant from doing something). Criminal cases are brought against criminals by the state, in England and Wales by the Director of Public Prosecutions and in Scotland through procurators fiscal.In England and Wales, every town has a Magistrates’ Court where minor cases are judged and more serious cases are passed to higher courts by three magistrates called Justices of the Peace, specially trained members of the public. The more serious cases are heard in a Crown Court by a judge and a jury. Minor civil cases, such as divorce and bankruptcy, are heard in the county courts and more serious ones in the High Court of Justice. Appeals against decisions from the Crown Court or the High Court go to the Court of Appeal and a few cases, where a question of law is in doubt, are passed to the House of Lords.In Scotland, criminal cases are heard in District Courts by members of the public called lay justices. More serious cases go to regional sheriff courts and are heard by the sheriff and a jury. Appeals go to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. Civil cases begin in the sheriff court and may go on appeal to the Court of Session.In the US, the judicial system is one of the three branches of the federal government, but the legal system operates at many levels with state, county and city courts as well as federal courts. Each type of court has its own jurisdiction, that is it deals with certain kinds of cases. Both civil and criminal cases are first heard in trial courts and there is a right to appeal against the court’s decision in a court of appeals. Many states have family courts where people get divorced and small claims courts which deal with small amounts of money. States also have trial courts which hear a wider range of cases and courts of appeal called superior courts or district courts. Most states have a supreme court where the most serious appeals are held. States have their own criminal code, but some crimes are federal offences, i.e. against federal law, and crimes may fall under federal jurisdiction if more than one state is involved.Most courts have only one judge, but some higher courts have several. In the US Supreme Court, the nine judges are called justices. The people on either side of a case are represented by lawyers, also called attorneys-at-law. In a criminal trial the defendant is represented by a defense attorney, or if they are too poor to pay a lawyer, the court will appoint a public defender. The prosecution is led by an Assistant District Attorney or, in federal cases, by a federal attorney.
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