Sources of Law

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The Historical Background to the English Legal System

The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom (UK) is divided into four regions: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each of these regions can be thought of as a country. However, the UK is one state not a federation of states (as in a federal state like the US or Australia) because all the separate parts are subject to the UK Parliament. This is said to have sovereign power. This means that it is subject to no higher legal authority and has the power and authority to make laws for all the separate parts of the UK. In a federal state, the parts reserve powers to themselves. England, Wales and Scotland (without Northern Ireland) are sometimes referred to together as Britain. But Britain or Great Britain also sometimes refers to the whole of the UK including the many islands that surround it and are part of the country.

The UK does not have a written Constitution. That is to say, there is no single document called a Constitution that allots political power and defines human rights. A number of uncoordinated documents have this function; some are statutes and decisions of the courts that are part of the law, others are not. Statutes, i.e. laws made by the UK Parliament, define part or the whole of certain political areas. These include the right to vote, human rights, the powers of the House of Commons and House of Lords (and who can be a member of the Houses of Commons and House of Lords), and the powers of the courts. We will look at the most important constitutional documents that are

not statutes or court decisions in this Unit.
The constitutional documents as a whole are uncoordinated in the sense that they have come about at different historical times and for different reasons: they do not refer to one another and some, as mentioned above, do not have the status (strictly speaking) of law, their authority is based on tradition. That is why it is necessary to have some understanding of the history of the UK to understand its constitution in general and the monarchy (the position of Kings and Queens) in particular.

The legal systems
Another complication to understanding the legal make-up of the UK is the fact that it has basically three legal systems (not to mention the individual systems of some of the larger islands). The three principal legal systems are those of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each of these systems forms a separate jurisdiction. Each jurisdiction has its own courts and judges, and customs. In addition, they each have a local law-making body. For Scotland it is the Scottish Parliament; for Wales the Welsh Assembly; and for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly. They have restricted powers for making laws for their own jurisdiction but all are subject to the UK Parliament. The UK Parliament has power to expand or restrict the powers of the regional bodies and could abolish them. This distinguishes the UK from a federal country. A federal country is made up of separate states which have given away (devolved) their power to a central authority. This will include the power to conduct foreign affairs. They retain such power as they have not devolved. In the UK, it is the other way round: the central authority, the UK Parliament, has devolved powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It retains all other powers, including the power to conduct foreign affairs.

Because the UK Parliament has sovereign power over the whole of the UK English history: the period of the Norman Conquest
The following events in English history going back as far as 1066 are important for understanding the evolution of English law, and we will study each of them in a little more detail: 1066, the Norman Conquest.

1215, Magna Carta ("the Great Charter").
13th century, expansion of Royal Justice based on writs and the Forms of Action. 1348, the plague.
Early 16th century, the development of contract law.
16th century, "the...
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