Civil justice in England and Wales
Civil justice captures a wide range of issues, where people, business or other organisations are trying to resolve their disputes with each other, or ensure that they have their rights respected. The jurisdiction covers a very wide range – from quite small or simple claims, for example damaged goods or recovery of debt, to large claims between multi-national companies.
Most Civil disputes do not end up in court, and those that do often don’t go all the way to a full trial. Many issues are resolved using established complaints procedures, through negotiation or, mediation. This often happens outside a court.
Civil justice cases which do go to court in England and Wales is mainly dealt with in the County Court. Some, usually more substantial or complex cases begin in the High Court.
Almost all civil cases should be in open court which the public may attend.
Judges in the Civil jurisdiction do not normally send a losing party to prison. Ordinarily the court will make an award for financial ‘damages’ to the successful party, the size of this award will depend on the circumstances of the claim. Sometimes the court will make an order or an injunction requiring defined behaviour to take place or to stop.
The civil courts also have a process to ensure awards can be enforced.
A judge hearing a Civil case
Before trying a Civil case the judge will read the relevant case papers and becomes familiar with their details.
The vast majority of Civil cases tried in court do not have a jury (libel and slander trials are the main exceptions). Most often a judge hears them on their own, deciding them by finding facts and applying the relevant law. There may be argument presented about the facts, and about what that law actually is. When the argument has finished the judge will give a reasoned judgment.
Judges also play an active role in managing civil cases once they have started, helping to ensure they proceed fairly as well as quickly and efficiently.
Occasionally, the parties will reach an agreement before the case reaches a judge.
Once the judge has heard the evidence from all parties involved and any submissions (representations) they wish to put forward, they deliver judgment. This may be immediately or, if the case is complicated, at a later date.
Civil judges do have the power to punish parties if, for example, they are in contempt of court but, generally, Civil cases do not involve the imposition of any punishment. If the judge decides that the claimant is entitled to damages, they will decide the amount. Or the claimant may have asked for an injunction – for example, to forbid the defendant from making excessive noise by playing the drums in the flat upstairs in the early hours of the morning, or a declaration – an order specifying the precise boundary between two properties about which the parties had never been able to agree. The task of the judge to is to decide on what is the appropriate remedy, if any, and on the precise terms of it.
When the judgment in the case has been delivered, the judge must also deal with the cost of the case. This may include the fees of any lawyers, court fees paid out by the parties, fees of expert witnesses, allowances that may be allowed to litigants who have acted in person (without lawyers), earnings lost and travelling and other expenses incurred by the parties and their witnesses. The general rule is that the unsuccessful party will have to pay the successful party’s costs but the judge has a wide discretion to depart from this rule. The judge’s decision on this part of the case will be very important to the parties. They may decide, for example, that the unsuccessful party should pay only a proportion of the successful party’s costs or that each party should bear their own costs. The judge may hear representations about this at the end of the case.
Court of Appeal – Civil Division
The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal hears appeals from all Divisions of the High Court and, in some instances from the County Courts and certain Tribunals.
Bringing an appeal is subject to obtaining ‘permission’, which may be granted by the court below or, more usually, by the Court of Appeal itself. Applications for permission to appeal are commonly determined by a single Lord or Lady Justice, full appeals by three judges. The Civil Division of the Court Appeal also deals with cases from the Upper Tribunal.