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English Courts

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In all legal systems there are institutions for creating, modifying, abolishing and applying the law. Usually these take the form of a hierarchy of courts and its capacity to make decisions is strictly defined in relation to other courts.

There are two main reasons for having a variety of courts. One is that a particular court can specialize in particular kinds of legal actions - for example, family courts and juvenile courts. The other is so that a person who feels his case was not fairly treated in a lower court can appeal to a higher court for reassessment (although the right of appeal usually depends upon the appellant being able to show certain reasons for his dissatisfaction). The decisions of a higher court are binding upon lower courts. At the top of the hierarchy is a supreme lawmaking body, but the process of taking an action from a lower court to the highest court may be very costly and time-consuming.

In general, the division between civil and criminal law is reflected in this system. The Crown Courts, for example, deal exclusively with criminal matters, the County Courts - with civil. However, the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court considers appeals from lower criminal courts, as well as civil matters, and the Magistrates Courts, while mostly concerned with criminal cases, also deal with some civil matters. The highest court, the House of Lords, deals with all matters (including appeals from Scottish and Northern Irish courts).

A criminal case usually begins in a Magistrates Court. Having arrested someone suspected of committing a crime, the police decide if they have enough evidence to make a formal accusation, or charge. If they charge the suspect, they may release him on the condition that he appear on a certain date at a certain Magistrates Court. This is known as unconditional bail. However, the police may instead take the suspect to a magistrate so that he remains in custody until he next appears before a court. The magistrate may decide that it is not necessary to hold the suspect in custody and may agree to unconditional bail, or the magistrate may grant conditional bail - that is, release the suspect provided that he puts up some money as security or agrees to surrender his passport or some similar condition. As the lowest criminal court, a Magistrates Court is empowered to hear certain cases only. Some minor cases, such as parking violations, are dealt with only by the magistrates. Some serious crimes, like murder, cannot be heard by the magistrates and must go to the Crown Courts. And there are some offences where the defendant is given the choice of having his case heard in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court. It takes much longer to have a case heard in the Crown Court, but some defendants prefer it because the facts of the case are decided by a jury, that is, ordinary members of the public.

In a Crown Court trial there are twelve jurors. These are ordinary members of the public between the ages of 18 and 70 who are selected at random. They are not paid but are given expenses while they are on jury service, which is usually for about two weeks. Service is compulsory, and it cannot normally be avoided without a good reason, such as illness. It is not necessary for a juror to know anything about the law - indeed certain people connected with the world of law, such as solicitors, are not allowed to serve as jurors. This is because the job of the jury is to listen to the case and to decide questions of fact. It is the judge's responsibility to guide them on questions of law.

This contrast between law and fact is very important. If a man is on trial for murder, for example, the judge will explain just what the crime of murder means in English law and the prosecution has to prove. He will explain how the trial will be conducted, summarize the evidence, and tell the jurors what factors they should consider in making their decision. These are questions of law. However, whether the defendant did in fact commit murder or not is a question of fact to be decided by the jurors themselves. It is necessary for at least ten of the twelve to agree.


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