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Legal Briefing Note: United Kingdom

Contents

"United Kingdom"
Head of State
Parliament
The House of Lords
House of Commons
Constitution
Privy Council, Cabinet and the Lord Chancellor
Legal System and Legal Profession

"United Kingdom"

The formal name of the United Kingdom is the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". It comprises, for the purposes of international representation, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Parliament of the United Kingdom meets in London. However, all four components of the UK have separate legal systems, except for Wales which tends to share the same court structure and body of law. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own laws and court structure. The laws of Norther Ireland are in many points similar to the laws of England. As such, there is no such thing as uniform "United Kingdom law" except for a few rare pieces of legislation touching on taxation or social security.

Head of State

A hereditary monarchy is in place to occupy the position of head of state. The throne descends to the sons of the sovereign in order of age or, if there are no sons, to the daughters. The Monarch (Queen Elizabeth II since February 6, 1952) has no real power although, on paper, they sign off on all important matters, such as approving bills (called Royal Assent), appointing ministers of the Crown, judges and diplomatic representatives and appointing international treaties. Under constitutional customs, the Throne has no discretion over papers presented to them for signature. If they were to ever decline a recommendation from the Cabinet, this would trigger a constitutional crisis. It is said that the Queen "reigns; she does not rule."

The monarchy remains a pivotal, albeit esthetic part of the law-making process in the United Kingdom. A law exists for the appointment of a "regent" to temporary administer to the Monarchy's duties if a king or queen were not yet adult or incapacitated in some other way.

Parliament

Technically, reference to "Parliament" refers to the House of Commons and the House of Lords presided over by the King or Queen. Both assemblies have a role to play in the passing of legislation. Parliament is organized by sessions which are generally conducted by scheduling 160 sitting days in a calendar year.

The House of Lords

The Queen appoints "peerages" by granting certain individuals perpetual standing in the Royal Court as a "Lord". Through the centuries, hundreds of "peerages" have been granted and most have been of the variety which can be passed on by inheritance. There are now over 1,200 "peers" who have the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

The House of Lords also has the power to write public laws but rarely does. It's most important role is to review laws proposed by the House of Commons. In fact a law now exists which allows the Monarchy to give Royal Assent to House of Commons bills even if they do not have House of Lords approval, in some situations (eg. money bills).

The House of Commons

The House of Commons has 651 members each elected from a geographical constituency. 524 of its members come from England.

Constitution

Surprisingly, there is no written constitution for the United Kingdom. Several important and important statutes do exists, such as the Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1689), but none of them are any more than regular statutes, susceptible to amendment by Parliament at any time (in other countries, such as in Canada, a special amending formula exists which prevents the Canadian Parliament from unilaterally amending the constitution.) This may change, though, with the adhesion of the United Kingdom to the European Union. Members of the Union must abide by European law and Europe has a written bill of rights (see A Bill of Rights For The United Kingdom?! in LawMagZine, Vol. 1, No. 1).

Privy Council, Cabinet and the Lord Chancellor

Every member ever appointed to the Cabinet becomes a member of the Privy Council for life. This relic from earlier centuries means that there are now over 300 members of the Privy Council. In centuries past, the Privy Council served as an advisory board to the monarch and was the first cabinet. "Member of the Privy Council", shown by the letters "P.C." after a surname, is now primarily a ceremonial title.

The Cabinet is where political power resides. A 15-25 member Cabinet is appointed by the Monarch on the prime minister's recommendation, from the membership of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, or even from outside Parliament. These persons serve as chief executive officer of the largest and most important government departments. This select group also meets collectively to plan government policy and programs and, together, ensure that all government departments support the government's legislative and political agenda. Cabinet's policy directions are translated into laws which are then brought before Parliament for approval. In this manner, the political will of the government is implemented. Ministers are responsible to Parliament for the proper functioning of their departments and would be expected to resign if their department failed or erred in an important duty or matter of state. There are more departments than there are vacancies in the Cabinet. Consequently, not all department heads appointed from the ranks of Parliament, are members of the Cabinet.

One member of the Cabinet, the Lord Chancellor, is, exceptionally and traditionally, from the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor is the senior legal minister in the Cabinet. The Lord Chancellor is also responsible for appointing judges and he or she presides over the Final Court of Appeal.

Legal System and Legal Profession

The legal system of England & Wales is different from that of Scotland or Northern Ireland. Each has its own court system and body of laws. English law is derived from English common law with a heavy influence of medieval Germanic sources. Scottish common law is derived from Roman law roots but has, over the past few centuries, developed many affinities with the English common law.

The traditional barrister/solicitor distinction is present throughout the United Kingdom although in Scotland, a "barrister" is called an "advocate". In general, barristers alone can plead before the most senior courts, whereas only solicitors can meet with clients and provide direct legal advice. The Law Society of England and Wales certifies solicitors for England and for Wales. Scotland and Norther Ireland have their own professional bodies. Qualifications are restricted to the jurisdiction of call.

 

 

 

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