This research guide is an introduction to researching modern English law using the materials available both in the Tarlton Law Library and freely online. This guide will cover researching only the law of England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate court systems from those of England and Wales and will thus be covered in a separate research guide.
Additionally, this research guide does not include information on European Union law, which may be binding on English courts. You may also want to consult Tarlton's research guide on European Union law.
There are several resources that will be useful when trying to find and understand English legal citations.
Citing English Legal Sources
A guide to citing English legal sources can be found in The Bluebook, Table T.2, pages 318-330.
Tarlton Research Guides
Use these links to access Tarlton's other Foreign & International Law research guides.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. Unlike most modern democracies, the United Kingdom has no single document which comprises its Constitution. Instead, the English constitution is largely made up of statutes, common law, and practice. For this reason, it is often said that the UK has an "unwritten" constitution. However, it is more accurate to say that the UK has an uncodified constitution. English constitutional law concerns such issues as the role of the state and the protection of individual rights.
It is also important to note that Acts passed by Parliament are by definition valid and are not subject to judicial review. A statute's "constitutionality" is not an issue that can be addressed by the courts; Parliament alone has the power to change a law.
Primary and Secondary Legislation
There are two main categories of legislation in the United Kingdom. Primary legislation is the general term used to describe laws that are passed by the legislative bodies of the UK, such as the UK Parliament. This type of legislation is typically referred to as statutes; the "statute book" refers to the body of statutory law that is currently in force. Primary legislation in the UK is analogous to Congressional acts, or statutes, in the United States.
Secondary legislation, sometimes called "subordinate legislation," is legislation that is made by a person or a body under authority that is delegated to them in primary legislation. This power is typically delegated to ministers, the Crown, or public bodies. Statutory Instruments are the most common type of secondary legislation in the UK. Secondary legislation is comparable to administrative law, or regulations, in the United States.
The graphic below, taken from the the interactive Guide to the Passage of a Bill from the UK Parliament, shows the process of a Bill becoming an Act of Parliament. For more detailed information, please visit the previous link.
Basic Structure of the English Court System
The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords was the final court of appeal for civil and criminal cases originating in England and Wales until October 2009, when the Supreme Court was formed as the highest court in the UK.
The Court of Appeal, in both the civil and criminal divisions, has only appellate jurisdiction; the High Court of Justice and the Crown Court have both appellate and original jurisdiction. They will hear on original jurisdiction civil and criminal cases considered too serious to be heard by either the Magistrate's Courts (criminal) or the County Courts (civil).
For a thorough discussion of the organization, procedures, and function of English courts, please consult the book below.