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The civil legal system explained

The law in England and Wales is made up of legislation and common law. Legislation is those laws which are passed by Parliament and common law is law developed by judges in their decisions. Those laws are then subject to European legislation and decisions made in the European Court of Justice.

The law really is a minefield of forever evolving rules and regulations – understanding it and keeping up with it is no easy feat.

The law is enforced through the civil courts which comprises the High Court and the County Courts.  The appropriate court for a claim will largely depend on the value and complexity of the claim with most claims being suitable for the County Courts.  Generally speaking the High Court is reserved for complex or specialist cases where there is a lot at stake or where there is a matter of public interest to be decided.

The legal profession is largely made up of solicitors and barristers (or counsel as they are commonly referred to).  They are often collectively referred to as lawyers but they are quite distinguishable from each other.

Solicitors will generally have day to day responsibility for a legal matter and day to day contact with the client.  They may also appear in the County Courts and with the requisite training they can also appear in the higher courts.

Barristers are specialist advocates who have the right to appear in the higher courts.  Solicitors will commonly engage the services of a barrister to attend court, to prepare documents for court or to provide an opinion on a particular legal problem.

The court process is largely set out in the Civil Procedure Rules which were introduced in 1998 following a review of the legal system by the then Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf.

The overriding objective of the Civil Procedure Rules is to ensure that parties to legal proceedings are on an equal footing; that the proceedings are dealt with proportionately; and that the proceedings are dealt with expeditiously and fairly.

The Rules set out the process that must be followed both before and after proceedings are commenced and there are specific rules for particular types of claim which can be found in the pre-action protocols within the Rules.

After proceedings have been commenced the court will give directions for the progress of the claim.  Generally the directions will include steps such as disclosure and inspection of documents, exchange of witness statements and expert evidence before the claim is listed for trial.

The law and the legal process can be very daunting and expensive.  If you are involved in legal proceedings or if you are contemplating legal proceedings then it is recommended that you seek advice from your solicitor.  He or she will be able to advise you on the strengths and weaknesses of your case and the most cost-effective way of dealing with it, including the possible alternatives of mediation and a negotiated out-of-court settlement.

Gian Floris is a Solicitor and Director with QualitySolicitors Gould & Swayne based in Wells.

Legal advice may vary with the circumstances of each case - be sure to take your solicitor’s advice.

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