UPDATE: Researching the Legal System of the United Kingdom
By Sarah Carter
Update by Hester Swift
Hester Swift has been Foreign and International Law Librarian at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, since 2007. She has written for the BIALL journal, Legal Information Management, and has been a contributor to successive editions of City Law School’s Opinion Writing and Case Preparation (Oxford University Press) since 2006. Previously she was European Union Librarian at the Law Society Library and she began her career at HM Treasury and Cabinet Office Library.
Published January/February 2020
- 1. The UK Legal System
- 2. The Court System
- 3. Primary Sources of Law
- 4. Encyclopedias
- 5. Indexes and Digests
- 6. Parliamentary Information
- 7. United Kingdom Government
- 8. Law Reform
- 9. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
- 9.1. Scotland
- 9.2. Wales
- 9.3. Northern Ireland
- 10. The Legal Profession
- 10.1. Legal Education
- 11. Legal Publishers
- 12. Legal News & Current Awareness
1.1. Background and Constitution
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was established in 1801 with the union of Great Britain and Ireland, but only achieved its present form in 1922, with the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the independent Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland).
The UK joined the European Economic Community, now the European Union, in 1973. European Union law therefore forms part of the law of the UK and the European Court of Justice has jurisdiction in matters of EU law. In June 2016 the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU and has not reached an agreement with the EU to date. To follow the developments, see UK Parliament information page, Leaving the European Union.
The UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (formal title, Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms). The Human Rights Act 1998 brought the protections set out in the Convention into UK law.
The Queen is the Head of State, although in practice the supreme authority of the Crown is exercised by the government of the day. The UK legislature is a bicameral parliament, consisting of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons consists of 650 elected Members of Parliament (MPs). The House of Lords has about 800 members of three types: life peers (the largest group), hereditary peers, and bishops. Most peers are appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own executives and legislatures, established under the Government of Wales Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as part of a process known as “devolution.” The legislatures of these three nations have the power to pass laws on certain subjects, while other subjects are reserved to the UK Parliament. However, since January 2017, there has been no Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been in full operation (House of Commons Library briefing, Introduction to devolution in the UK). The UK Parliament in London is often referred to as “Westminster”, to distinguish it from the other legislatures.
England and Wales have a combined judicial system, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own judicial systems. There is no single written constitution. The constitutional law of the UK consists largely of statute, case law and constitutional conventions (which do not have statutory authority but nevertheless have binding force). Much of the relationship between the Sovereign (the Queen) and Parliament is conventional rather than statutory.
The Ministry of Justice is the UK government department responsible for the justice system and for certain aspects of constitutional policy. Its head is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. The Ministry’s predecessor was the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which had itself superseded the Lord Chancellor’s Department. The cabinet office is responsible for many areas of constitutional policy, including devolution, Crown affairs and elections.
Since the late 1990s there have been constitutional reforms in several areas, including membership of the House of Lords, devolution and human rights. The process of reforming the House of Lords began with House of Lords Act 1999, which abolished the right to sit in the House of all the hereditary peers apart from ninety-two “excepted” hereditary peers (House of Lords Library, Hereditary Peers in the House of Lords Since 1999). The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998, incorporating into UK law the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Commentary on UK constitutional affairs can be found on the website of the University College London (UCL) Constitution Unit and on the blog, Public Law for Everyone, by Mark Elliott, Professor of Public Law at the University of Cambridge.
A diagram of the court systems of England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland can be found on the website of the Supreme Court. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, is responsible for administration of the court and tribunal system in England and Wales.
In England and Wales the vast majority of criminal cases are heard in the magistrates’ courts, but the most serious matters are heard by the Crown Court or, occasionally, the High Court. Most civil cases are heard by the County Court, but some are dealt with by magistrates’ courts or the High Court. Family cases are usually heard by the Family Court, but sometimes start in the High Court (Family Division). Above these courts are the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. For further information, see the Judiciary website.
The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for all UK civil cases, and for criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court took over the judicial functions of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in October 2009, under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (see Explanatory Notes to the Act), thereby making a constitutional separation between the legislature and the judiciary.
A further appellate court is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which hears appeals from the UK overseas territories, Crown dependencies and some Commonwealth countries.
A system of specialist tribunals deals with certain matters in England and Wales, and, in some instances, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. The Judiciary website has a diagram of the tribunals system.
The Scottish and Northern Irish court systems are described below.
This section focuses on legislation by the UK Parliament at Westminster; the legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are covered below. An overview of the many different kinds of UK legislation is available at Legislation.gov.uk.
3.1.1. Primary Legislation: Acts of Parliament
Public general acts are the most familiar type of UK primary legislation; they are passed at Westminster and change the general law. Parliament may also pass local acts and personal acts. Local acts affect specific groups or places, while personal acts (now rare) relate to the affairs of individuals. Local and personal acts collectively are sometimes known as “private acts.” Public general acts are first published as individual pamphlets by The Stationery Office (TSO). All the acts passed in a year are then issued in bound volumes in the TSO series Public General Acts and General Synod Measures (the General Synod is the Church of England’s national assembly). Each public general act within a year is given a chapter number; for example, the Banking Act 2009 is numbered “c.1” (chapter 1), because it was the first act of 2009.
Since 1999, the TSO has published separate explanatory notes for each public general act (with certain exceptions).
Revised public general acts (except those applying only to Scotland) are published in Halsbury’s Statutes, a LexisNexis title. Arranged by subject in more than fifty volumes, Halsbury’s Statutes comprises acts in force, as amended, with annotations. It is updated by means of reissued volumes, an annual cumulative supplement and a loose-leaf service. The online equivalent is the UK primary legislation collection on Lexis®Library.
Current Law Statutes Annotated (Sweet and Maxwell) publishes acts as originally passed. Each has an introduction and annotations, giving the background to the act and detailing the official reports, policy papers and parliamentary debates which preceded it.
Information about local and personal acts can be found in the House of Commons Background Paper, “Private bills in Parliament,” and the Law Society Library’s research guide, “How to find local and personal acts.”
Statutory instruments (SIs), are secondary legislation: rules, regulations and orders made under the authority of an act of Parliament. They often provide the detail required for the application of the act. Some contain provisions for the commencement (coming into force) of primary legislation.
SIs are published individually by The Stationery Office and cumulate annually into bound volumes.
They are numbered sequentially within each year, for example: The Inquiry Rules 2006, SI 2006/1838.
- Legislation.gov.uk, the official UK legislation website, carries primary and secondary legislation, free of charge. All public general acts are available from 1988 onwards, and most of the earlier ones are also there. Both the original and revised versions (incorporating amendments) are provided; the revised versions are not always completely up-to-date, but the site gives a warning if this is the case. All SIs are available in the original version from 1987 onwards, together with selected earlier instruments (full coverage information is also available online).
- BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, provides primary and secondary legislation (original versions) free of charge.
UK legislation is also provided by subscription databases:
- Justis has the original text of acts from 1235 onwards, with lists of amendments, and SIs from 1949 onwards, plus a selection of earlier SIs.
- Westlaw UK has acts and SIs in their original versions and revised versions; it also has historical revised versions of acts.
- Lexis®Library has acts and SIs in both their original and revised versions; it also has historical revised versions of acts.
- Lawtel has the original text of acts and SIs from 1984 onwards, with lists of amendments.
See below for online sources of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislation.
This section covers the courts and tribunals of England and Wales, the UK Supreme Court, the House of Lords and the Privy Council. For decisions of the Scottish and Northern Irish courts, see the sections on Scotland and Northern Ireland, below.
Cases of legal significance from the higher courts and tribunals are reported (published) in series called law reports. However, cases from the lower courts - magistrates’ courts, county courts, Crown Court - and tribunals are very rarely reported, and those which do not establish a noteworthy legal point are not reported at all.
Until 1865, case reporting was done by private court reporters; the resultant publications are called the nominate reports, because they are usually known by the name of the reporter. The nominate reports have been reprinted in a 178-volume set called the English Reports (1220 - 1873). The English Reports are available free on CommonLII, as well being included in subscription databases.
In 1865 the reporting of cases was systematised by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting (ICLR), which started publishing a series called The Law Reports. These are the most authoritative source of case law for England and Wales and should be cited in preference to other series, where there is a choice.
Until recently The Law Reports consisted of four sub-series, Appeal Cases, Chancery Division, Queen’s Bench Division and Family Division. Judgments of the Supreme Court, House of Lords and Privy Council appeared in Appeal Cases. High Court cases appeared in the series relating to the appropriate High Court division: Chancery, Queen’s Bench or Family. Cases heard by the Court of Appeal did not appear in Appeal Cases, but in the series dedicated to the High Court division from which the case was appealed. From January 2015 onwards, the four sub-series have been combined into one, under the title Law Reports: Appeal Cases, Queen's Bench Division, Chancery Division and Family Division.
The ICLR also publishes the Weekly Law Reports (1954-) and other series.
The All England Law Reports (1936 - ) is the only other general series of law reports. It is published by LexisNexis. In addition, there are a large number of specialised reports from various publishers, covering different areas of law.
The Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations, a free resource launched by Cardiff University in 2004, is an authoritative directory of legal abbreviations from the UK and around the world.
The leading printed guide to UK legal abbreviations is Raistrick, D., Index to Legal Citations and Abbreviations, 4th ed., Sweet and Maxwell, 2013.
The University of Oxford’s law faculty has developed a citation system for law, the Oxford University Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA).
A distinction must be made between law reports and transcripts. Transcripts, also known as “unreported cases”, are the court’s own written record of the judgment, whereas law reports are edited, formally-published versions (see “What’s the difference between a ‘law report’ and a ‘transcript’?”, ICLR Blog, 20 April 2015). A vast number of case transcripts are available online, many free of charge; some of these decisions will subsequently appear in law reports, while many others will remain unreported.
For online decisions of the Scottish and Northern Irish courts, see the sections on Scotland and Northern Ireland, below.
- BAILII provides transcripts of cases from the higher courts and from various tribunals. It also includes a collection of leading cases arranged by subject. New judgments often appear on BAILII before they are available elsewhere.
- CommonLII provides the full series of the English Reports
- Supreme Court judgments are all on the Court’s website.
- House of Lords judgments are on the Parliament website from 1996 to 2009 (when the new Supreme Court took over as the final court of appeal).
- Tribunal judgments are available via the HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
- Lexis®Library includes The Law Reports (1865- ), the All England Law Reports (1936- ), the All England Law Reports Reprint and All England Law Reports Reprint Extension (cases from 1558 to 1935), the Weekly Law Reports (1953 - ), the English Reports and many other series. It also provides unreported cases (transcripts) from 1980 onwards.
- Westlaw UK includes The Law Reports (1865- ), the Weekly Law Reports (1953 - ), Criminal Appeal Reports (1909-), the English Reports and numerous other series, plus unreported cases from 1967 onwards.
- Justis offers The Law Reports, (1865- ), the Times Law Reports (1990- ), Commercial Law Cases (1994- ), the English Reports and several other series, as well as a large set of unreported cases.
- HeinOnline has the English Reports.
- Lawtel contains a large database of unreported cases, from about 1980 onwards.
The leading legal encyclopaedia for England and Wales is Halsbury’s Laws of England, published in numerous volumes by LexisNexis. It is now in its fifth edition, consisting of more than 100 volumes and covering all areas of the law. Halsbury’s Laws is also on Lexis®Library.
Sweet and Maxwell publishes multi-volume looseleaf encyclopedias focusing on particular areas of law. Many of these are available on Westlaw UK.
Legislation and Case law Indexes: The Chronological Table of the Statutes, published by The Stationery Office (TSO), lists amendments to acts of the Parliaments of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom from 1235 onwards. Until the early 1990s there was also a subject index, the Index to the Statutes, published by HMSO, but this has been superseded by online sources.
Sweet and Maxwell’s Current Law Legislation Citator lists amendments to UK statutes from 1947 onwards.
Cases are indexed and summarised in two main print titles:
- The Digest(LexisNexis). Has summaries of cases from 1919 onwards, with law report references and details of citations in subsequent case law. There are cumulative indexes by party name and subject.
- Current Law (Sweet and Maxwell). The Current Law Year Book and monthly updates contain summaries of cases from 1947 onwards; the Current Law Case Citator gives law report references (1947- ) and lists citations in subsequent case law.
Westlaw UK, Lexis®Library and Justis all include case citators. The free online citator, LawCite, covers the UK as well as other English-speaking jurisdictions.
Periodical Indexes: The Legal Journals Index, part of the Journals collection on Westlaw UK, covers about 1,000 law journals and goes back to 1986. Lexis®Library’s Journals Index covers more than 500 journals and goes back to 1995. The Index to Legal Periodicals, a US database, has good coverage of the more academic UK legal journals.
The UK Parliament website provides information on the current and past business of the two Houses of Parliament and their committees. It also makes available parliamentary publications and thousands of detailed research briefings.
The debates of the UK Parliament at Westminster are published in Hansard, also known as the Official Report, or Parliamentary Debates. There are different series for the House of Commons and House of Lords. When Parliament is sitting, Hansard is published daily; it then cumulates into sessional volumes. The debates of the House of Commons Public Bill Committees (formerly “Standing Committees”) are published separately. They are sometimes referred to as “Committee Hansard”.
The new Hansard database on the Parliament website provides Commons and Lords Hansard from 1803 onwards and public bill committee debates from about 2015 onwards. Earlier public bill committee / standing committee debates are available in the Public Bill Committee debates archive, from 1997/98 to 2015/16.
Further information about Hansard is available under About Parliament.
Bills are draft acts of Parliament. Bills currently going through Parliament are available on the Parliament website, together with details of each stage of the legislative process. Bills from previous sessions are on the Parliament site from 2002/03 onwards.
The progress of old bills through Parliament is detailed in the Sessional Information Digest (1983 to 2012). Current Law Statutes Annotated (Sweet and Maxwell, 1948- ) gives Hansard references for every stage of the legislative procedure, in the introduction to each act. The printed indexes to Hansard are an alternative means of tracing a bill’s parliamentary stages.
The government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is headed by the Prime Minister, supported by the Cabinet - senior members of the government - and other ministers. The official Gov.uk portal brings together the formerly separate websites of each government department.
Most official publications are published by The Stationery Office (TSO), the privatised incarnation of the old official publisher, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO). Part of HMSO remains within the National Archives, handling the statutory functions of official publishing and administering crown and parliamentary copyright. Some official publications are published by individual government departments or agencies, rather than by TSO.
Policy papers, consultation documents, reports (including Law Commission reports), treaties, guidance and other government publications are available on Gov.uk under Official Documents, Policy Papers and Consultations, or Guidance and Regulation. They can also be found on the pages of the issuing department or agency.
If a particular publication is too old to be on Gov.uk, try:
- The UK Government Web Archive
- British Official Publications, a digitised collection provided by the University of Southampton (formerly BOPCRIS)
- print collections held by national, university and other libraries
The Stationery Office Annual Catalogue (formerly HMSO Annual Catalogue and other titles) has detailed indexes to government publications.
Parliamentary publications, also known as “parliamentary papers,” are found on the Parliament website and in national, university and other libraries. They include select committee reports and business papers.
Proquest’s subscription database, UK Parliamentary Papers, includes parliamentary debates and command papers.
The Law Commission, an independent body set up in 1965, keeps the law of England and Wales under review and recommends reforms. Law reform reports, consultation papers and other Law Commission publications are on the Law Commission website and also on BAILII.
The Scottish Law Commission was also set up in 1965. All its law reform reports can be found on its website, together with all consultation papers from 2001 onwards and a selection from earlier dates. The Northern Ireland Law Commission was established in 2007. Its reports and consultation papers are on its website as well.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own legislatures, established in the late 1990s. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own court systems, while Wales is covered by the unified court system of England and Wales.
The Scottish legal system is in part separate from that of England and Wales. It is a mixed system, combining elements of civil law and common law.
When Scotland became part of Great Britain, under the Treaty of Union in 1707, it lost its independent legislative powers. Nearly three hundred years later, a new Scottish Parliament was established under the Scotland Act 1998.
The Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate in all areas not reserved to the UK Parliament at Westminster; reserved matters include foreign affairs, defence and national security (see Scotland Act 1998, schedule 5). Following the vote against Scottish independence in the referendum of 18 September 2014, the Smith Commission published a report recommending the devolution of a number of additional areas.
The Scottish court system is separate from that of England and Wales. The principal law officer is the Lord Advocate. The Court of Session is the supreme civil court, subject to appeal to the Supreme Court in London; most civil cases are dealt with in the sheriff courts. The supreme criminal court is the High Court of Justiciary, and the lower courts are the sheriff courts and district courts. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals website contains information about the court system.
Acts passed by the old Scottish parliaments (up to 1707) were collected in the nineteenth century and published in a twelve-volume set, The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, edited by Thomas Thomson. Old Scottish acts are also available free online:
Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 (compiled by the Scottish Parliament Project at the University of St Andrews) includes acts and other parliamentary documents.
Legislation.gov.uk has a collection called “Acts of the Old Scottish Parliament”
Scottish acts passed at Westminster (1707 onwards), are published individually by TSO, then cumulated in the official annual set of UK statutes, Public General Acts and General Synod Measures. Westminster acts may apply wholly or partly to Scotland; those applying wholly to Scotland have ‘(Scotland)’ in the title, for example, the Partnerships (Prosecution) (Scotland) Act 2013.
Acts passed by the new Scottish Parliament (1999 onwards), are published individually by TSO, then cumulated into the official annual set, Acts of the Scottish Parliament. The original texts of all acts of the Scottish Parliament (ASPs) are on legislation.gov.uk. Some revised ASPs are also available on this site, but they are not always fully up to date.
Westlaw UK has revised versions of all acts relating to Scotland, whether passed by the UK or Scottish Parliament. Lexis®Library has most of these acts (also in revised versions), but some Westminster acts applying wholly to Scotland are not included.
Justis has the original versions of ASPs and Westminster acts applying to Scotland. It does not have acts of the old Scottish parliaments.
Since 1999, most secondary legislation for Scotland is made by the Scottish administration and appears in TSO’s Scottish Statutory Instruments (SSIs) series. A few UK statutory instruments applying to Scotland are still made, however, and these appear in the UK Statutory Instruments (SIs) series.
SSIs and SIs are available as originally made on legislation.gov.uk and on the Justis database. Westlaw UK and Lexis®Library both have revised SSIs and SIs, including SIs only applying to Scotland.
9.1.3. Case Law
The main series of Scottish law reports is Session Cases (1822 - ), published by the Scottish Council of Law Reporting. It reports cases heard in the Court of Session, the Supreme Court, the House of Lords and the High Court of Justiciary. Until 1907, the series was cited by the abbreviated names of the successive editors: Shaw (S.), Dunlop (D.), MacPherson (M.), Rettie (R.) and Fraser (F.); since 1907, it has been cited as ‘SC’. Session Cases is on Lexis®Library and Westlaw UK..
The Scots Law Times (1893- ) is a weekly publication containing Scottish law reports; an online version is available on Westlaw UK. There are also other Scottish series, and some significant Scottish judgments may be reported in the Weekly Law Reports and All England Law Reports.
BAILII provides cases from the High Court of Justiciary, the Court of Session and the Sheriff Court, as well as UK Supreme Court judgments. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals website has a database of cases from the High Court of Justiciary, Court of Session and Sheriff Court, going back to about 1998.
The Scottish Government website provides current publications and a large archive of older material, including consultation papers and reports. Scottish parliamentary publications, such as bills, debates and committee reports, are available from the website of the Scottish Parliament.
Wales has been united with England administratively, politically and legally since the 16th century. Under arrangements for devolution, a Welsh Assembly was established in 1999, with the power to make secondary legislation only.
The settlement created under the Government of Wales Act 1998 was substantially altered by the Government of Wales Act 2006. The National Assembly for Wales replaced the Welsh Assembly and was given limited powers to make laws known as “measures,” the first of which was passed in 2008. Each measure within a year has a serial number prefixed by “nawm” in the English-language version, or “mccc” in the Welsh-language version (equivalent to the chapter number of a Westminster act or the ASP number of a Scottish Parliament act). The 2006 Act also established an executive body for Wales, the Welsh Government.
Following a referendum in 2011, the Assembly now has the power to pass laws in all devolved areas, without consulting the UK Parliament; previously, it needed Westminster’s agreement to legislate in some areas. Laws passed by the Assembly from 2012 onwards are called acts, not measures (Government of Wales Act, s.107 (1)). Each Welsh Assembly act in a given year has a number prefixed “anaw” in the English version and “dccc” in the Welsh.
Further details about Welsh law are given in the Globalex guide Researching Welsh Law: What is Unique in Wales?, by Lillian Stevenson and Dr. Catrin Huws. See also Daniel Greenberg’s article, “Welsh Devolution,” (2013) 13 LIM 134.
Acts and measures passed by the National Assembly for Wales, and Wales statutory instruments are published in printed format by TSO. They are available online via Legislation.gov.uk and BAILII. Some revised Welsh primary legislation is available on Legislation.gov.uk, but it is often not fully updated; Wales SIs are provided as originally made on both websites.
For fully updated Welsh legislation, primary and secondary, use the subscription databases Westlaw UK and Lexis®Library.
For Westminster legislation applying to Wales, see Westlaw UK, Lexis®Library, Legislation.gov.uk and BAILII. Further details about Westminster legislation are available above.
There is no separate Welsh case law - see the main case law section, above.
The island of Ireland was divided into North and South by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, passed by the UK Parliament at Westminster. The Act was rejected by the South, which left the United Kingdom to form the Irish Free State, now Ireland. What had been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland consequently became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Parliament of Northern Ireland opened in 1921 and since 1932, it has been located at Stormont, near Belfast. It was given the power to legislate in most policy areas, but certain matters were still to be dealt with by the UK Parliament.
Civil unrest led to the suspension of the Stormont Parliament in March 1972. A new legislature, the Northern Ireland Assembly, was established in 1973, but suspended in May 1974, when the British Government resumed direct rule.
In 1998, a political settlement for Northern Ireland was finally reached in the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement (UKTS 50, 2000). The Northern Ireland Act 1998 implemented the Agreement and the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 established the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, since January 2017 the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been in full operation and there has been no Northern Ireland Executive.
The websites of the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Ireland Assembly provide information about the devolution settlement and there is a collection of information and documents concerning the Northern Ireland conflict on the University of Ulster’s CAIN website.
For details of Northern Ireland legal publications since devolution, see Alison Lorimer, “Northern Ireland Legal Material Since Devolution: a Practical Guide”, (2013) 13 LIM 152. See also Sarah Semple, “Researching the Law of Northern Ireland”, (2008) 8 LIM 283.
Northern Ireland has its own court structure, largely replicating that of England and Wales. The final court of appeal for Northern Ireland is the UK Supreme Court. The NIdirect website, an official service for citizens, gives an overview of the Northern Irish courts.
Legislative powers were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly from 2 December 1999. Several times since then the Assembly has been suspended. At the time of writing, July 2019, although not technically suspended, it is not fully operational.
Since the creation of Northern Ireland, acts applying to the province have been passed at various times by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, the UK Parliament at Westminster and the current Northern Ireland Assembly (see “Background”, above). The laws passed by the short-lived 1970s Northern Ireland Assembly were called measures, not acts.
Northern Ireland Orders in Council are a third type of (quasi-) primary legislation. Each order has two reference numbers: an NI (Northern Ireland) number and an SI (statutory instrument) number: for example, The Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, SI 2007 no. 914 (NI 8). Although mainly seen during periods of direct rule from Britain, they continue to be used occasionally.
- The acts of the Parliament of Northern Ireland (1921-72) were published by HMSO Belfast in annual volumes under the title Public General Acts, also known as Northern Ireland Statutes. They are included in Statutes Revised Northern Ireland revised to 1981; revised versions are also on Legislation.gov.uk.
- The measures of the 1973/74 Northern Ireland Assembly were published in the 1974 volume of Northern Ireland Statutes (title page, “Measures and Orders in Council”). Revised versions are available in Statutes Revised Northern Ireland (revised to 1981) and on Legislation.gov.uk.
- The acts of the current Northern Ireland Assembly are published in Northern Ireland Statutes, also known as Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Original and partially revised versions are on Legislation.gov.uk; fully revised versions are on Westlaw UK.
- Northern Ireland Orders in Council appear in Northern Ireland Statutes from 1972 onwards. Revised versions as at 1981 appear in Statutes Revised Northern Ireland. Orders made from 1987 onwards are on Legislation.gov.uk (original and revised versions, the latter not always completely up-to-date) and Westlaw UK (fully revised 1991 onwards, original versions 1987 to 1990).
- Westminster acts applying to Northern Ireland appear in the usual UK sources (see above).
Statutes Revised Northern Ireland includes statutes of all the above types, except Westminster acts from 1921 onwards and acts of the current Assembly. Statues Revised also includes old acts still applying to Northern Ireland which were passed by the Parliaments of England/Great Britain/the UK between 1226 and 1920 and those passed by the Parliament of Ireland at Dublin from 1495 to 1800. The last printed edition of Statutes Revised Northern Ireland was the second, giving the text in force as at 31 March 1981. It has now been incorporated into Legislation.gov.uk, where it has been revised further but not brought fully up t0 date.
Secondary legislation applying to Northern Ireland takes two forms:
- Statutory rules (SRs), made by Northern Ireland government departments: these have an SR number, for example, the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 1994, SR 1994/74. They are published in Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland (also known as Northern Ireland Statutory Rules). They are all on Legislation.gov.uk from 1996 onwards, together with a large selection from 1974 to 1995, all in their original versions. Revised versions of Northern Ireland SRs are available on Westlaw UK, 1991 onwards.
- UK statutory instruments (SIs): these have an SI number, for example The Maximum Number of Judges (Northern Ireland) Order 2001, SI 2001/958. They are distinguished from Northern Ireland Orders in Council (see above) by the lack of an NI number. See above for sources of UK SIs.
Northern Ireland Law Reports (1925 - ) is the official series for the province. It covers cases from the superior courts and appeals from those courts to the House of Lords or UK Supreme Court. The series was originally published by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for Northern Ireland but is now published by LexisNexis and an online version is found on Lexis ®Library.
Another Northern Ireland series is the Northern Ireland Judgments Bulletin (1978-), also published by LexisNexis and also available on Lexis®Library. The Bulletin of Northern Ireland Law, published by SLS Legal Publications from 1981 to 2012, includes case summaries.
Judiciary NI provides a database containing large numbers of Northern Ireland court and tribunal cases from 2002 onwards and selected earlier cases. Northern Ireland court decisions from 1998 onwards are available on BAILII.
The legal profession in England and Wales is made up of two main kinds of lawyers: solicitors and barristers. Barristers represent clients in the courts on the instruction of solicitors. Some solicitors, known as ‘solicitor advocates’ also represent clients in court, while many solicitors are not involved in litigation at all.
Barristers are organised into groups called “chambers,” but are essentially self-employed. Solicitors are organised into firms of varying size, from sole practitioner to large multinational practices. They provide all legal services and instruct barristers.
The Bar Council is the representative body for barristers in England and Wales; the regulatory body is the Bar Standards Board. The Law Society of England and Wales is the representative body for solicitors and the Solicitors Regulation Authority is the regulatory body.
Northern Ireland has its own solicitors and barristers and therefore its own Law Society and Bar. In Scotland the legal profession is divided into solicitors and advocates. Solicitors are represented and regulated by the Law Society of Scotland. Advocates are members of the Scottish Bar, the Faculty of Advocates.
Law degrees in England and Wales are at the undergraduate level. Professional training for law graduates is provided by means of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for barristers, and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) for solicitors.
Students with a first degree in a subject other than law must follow a one-year qualifying course known as the GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) before being eligible for the professional courses; alternatively, they may choose the alternative route offered by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.
In order to complete their training, student solicitors must find a post in a law firm as a trainee solicitor and barristers must obtain a pupillage in a set of barristers’ chambers.
For information about legal education in Scotland, refer to the websites of the Law Society of Scotland and Faculty of Advocates. For Northern Ireland, see the websites of the Law Society of Northern Ireland and the Bar of Northern Ireland.
Other law publishers include Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Bloomsbury (which owns the academic Hart imprint), Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, and Edward Elgar. In the last few years the family law specialist, Jordan Publishing, has been acquired by RELX.
The leading law publisher for Scotland is W. Green, owned by Thomson Reuters. Other publishers of legal titles include Edinburgh University Press. Some of the UK publishers mentioned above also cover Scottish law. Books on the law of Northern Ireland are published by Bloomsbury, Hart, Routledge and other UK publishers. The Northern Irish law specialist, SLS Legal Publications, closed in 2012.
The following are some of the websites, online magazines and blogs providing legal news free of charge:
- Current Awareness: blog by Inner Temple Library covering the law of England and Wales
- Law Society Gazette: online version of the Law Society of England and Wales’ weekly magazine
- Elexica: long-running legal news service from the law firm Simmons & Simmons
- Internet Newsletter for Lawyers: founded by Delia Venables in 1998 and now edited by Nick Holmes
- ICLR Blog: legal news and commentary from the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting
- Law Society of Scotland: latest news
- Law Society of Northern Ireland: news
A directory of more than 100 UK law blogs is available from Venables Legal Resources. In addition to free resources, subscription databases such as Westlaw UK and Lexis®Library provide current awareness and legal news. LIS-LAW is the main online forum for discussion among law librarians in the UK.