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When the defendant in a criminal trial is found not guilty of a crime and is therefore allowed to walk free from court.

Act of Parliament

A piece of written law that has been made by Parliament. An Act goes through a series of stages in both Houses of Parliament. An Act of Parliament is also referred to as an example of statute law, or primary legislation.


A system which allows two or more competing sides to present and argue their case. The argument is presented before a judge, who makes a decision based on the evidence presented.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

Methods such as arbitration, mediation, conciliation and negotiation that people can use to resolve a dispute without the case reaching the courts, ADR offers an alternative to litigation.


When a decision has been reached by a court, the losing party usually has the right to ask that the matter be re-considered by a higher court. For example, a decision of the Court of Appeal may be appealed to the House of Lords. The right to appeal is only given on grounds specified by the court and these will usually be restricted to matters of law.

Appellate court

Any court that hears appeals from a lower court. In England and Wales, the highest appellate court currently is the House of Lords. In 2009, the Supreme Court will replace the House of Lords as the highest appellate court.


A means of settling disputes without having to go to court. The parties are assisted by an independent third party, called the arbitrator, who makes a legally binding decision on the dispute.

Attorney General

The Attorney General is the Government's chief legal adviser and is politically accountable for the work of a number of State bodies, including the Treasury Solicitor, the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Attorney General can refer cases to the Court of Appeal where an acquittal is questionable on a point of law or where a sentence has been passed which is considered ‘unduly lenient’.


Bar Council

The governing body of the barristers' profession. Run by elected officials, it is responsible for the Bar's Code of Conduct, disciplinary matters and representing the interests of the Bar to external bodies. It was formally known as the General Council of the Bar.


One of the two branches of the legal profession in England and Wales; the other being a solicitor. Barristers traditionally focus primarily on advocacy, and on qualification have full rights of audience in court. They are regulated by the Bar Council, and must be a member of one of the four Inns of Court.

Bar Vocational Course (BVC)

Following completion of a law degree (or completion of a post-graduate conversion course to law), would-be barristers must undertake a vocational stage of training. The BVC is a very practical course, which prepares students for life as a barrister.


A term describing a judge or group of judges sitting in court.


A draft piece of primary legislation as it goes through the stages of becoming an Act of Parliament.

Binding precedent

A precedent established by judges in the higher appeal courts that must be followed by the lower courts unless there is a good reason for departing from it; for example, that it can be distinguished. The binding element of the judicial decision is referred to as the ratio decidendi. The doctrine of binding precedent is also known as stare decisis.



Barristers are usually self-employed, but they form organisations, known as chambers, through which they share a building, overheads and clerking services. A specific barristers' chambers is referred to as a ‘set’ of chambers. Individual sets often develop their own specialisms in, for example, family law or crime.

Civil law

The body of law dealing with non-criminal matters, such as the rights of individuals.

Civil Procedure Rules (CPR)

The body of rules relating to procedure in civil courts. These were introduced as part of the Woolf Reforms.

Common law

The body of law which has evolved from decisions of the courts, rather than deriving from Acts of Parliament. Common law development is associated with the doctrine of judicial precedent.

Community sentence

An offender is sometimes made to serve his or her sentence by working in the community, rather than going to prison. Community sentences can be tailored to individual offenders, and to the crime that they have committed.


A form of alternative dispute resolution where the parties try to settle their differences without going to court. The process is assisted by an independent third party, the conciliator, who helps the parties to reach an agreement.

Conditional fees

A Conditional Fee Arrangement is one where the lawyer agrees only to recover his or her fee if the client wins the case. Often popularly referred to as ‘no win, no fee’ agreements.


A set of rules and customs that set out, in effect, how a country should be run. A constitution does not have to be written but may have evolved over the years. The British constitution is an example of an unwritten constitution.

County court

The county court hears civil matters, such as debt repayment and personal injury claims. It deals with relatively straightforward claims.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal has both civil and criminal divisions and hears appeals in these areas. It is second only to the House of Lords in the hierarchy of English courts. It sits in the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Court of First Instance

A court that hears a case for the first time.

Criminal law

The body of law that deals with and punishes offenders who have committed a crime.

Crown Court

The Crown Court deals with serious criminal cases, such as murder. It also hears cases appealed from or referred by the magistrates' courts. Trials at the Crown Court are heard by a judge and a jury.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

The CPS advises the police on bringing a prosecution. It makes the decision whether or not to prosecute someone who has been charged with an offence and then prepares the case against the offender and brings the prosecution to court. The CPS is headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).


The detainment of a person in a place of security, such as a prison or a police station.



The person in civil law defending a claim, or the person being tried for an offence in criminal law. In criminal law, the term ‘accused’ is sometimes preferred over ‘defendant’.

Delegated legislation

Legislation passed not in an Act of Parliament itself but through powers conferred on a body through an Act of Parliament. Most delegated legislation is passed to supplement Acts of Parliament, for example, by providing detailed rules or regulations. Also known as subordinate legislation.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)

The Government's most senior prosecutor. The DPP is head of the Crown Prosecution Service, and reports to the Attorney General.


A sentence that follows a defendant's conviction, but where punishment would be inappropriate. It allows the defendant to walk free from court, but, unlike an acquittal, the conviction is recorded. The discharge may be absolute, which means that no further action will be taken against the defendant, or conditional, which means that further action will be taken only if the defendant offends again within a specified time period.


Judges are bound by the doctrine of judicial precedent. However, if the facts in the case before the judge differ from the precedent that he or she is required to follow, the judge may distinguish it, that is, declare it different from the precedent. The judge may then make his or her own decision on the case.

Double jeopardy

An historical rule that a person acquitted for an offence could not be charge with that offence again. The law has now changed and in certain circumstances the Court of Appeal will permit a defendant to be re-tried.

Duty of care

A concept associated with Lord Atkin's 'neighbour test' in Donoghue v Stevenson (1932), that a defendant will owe a duty if it is reasonably foreseeable that his or her acts or omissions would affect a neighbour.


Ejusdem generis

A rule of language that is used in statutory interpretation. In English, it means the 'same kind' or 'same class' rule. Where a statute contains a list, such as ‘cats, dogs and other pets’, an animal not specified within that list will only be included if it is the same kind of animal as those listed. Thus it is likely that a domestic pet, such as a hamster, would be included, but a wild animal, such as a tiger, would not.


The body of law that developed originally through the Courts of Chancery. It is separate from the common law, although the administration of both has now been combined. Some concepts, such as the trust, are only recognised in equity. The Judicature Acts provided that if equity and the common law conflict, equity will prevail.

European Community (EC) Law

The body of law that has emerged from the European Community.

European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

A charter setting out a series of fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life. It was incorporated into English law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)

The legal institution of the Council of Europe. Its jurisdiction is the European Convention on Human Rights. Its judges are drawn from Member States, although they sit as individuals, rather than as representatives of the State The ECtHR sits at Strasbourg.

European Court of Justice (ECJ)

The judicial arm of the European Union (EU). The ECJ is an institution of the EU which hears actions brought by the European Commission against Member States for breaches of EC law and hears Art 234 References from Member State courts to clarify questions of EC law. In the field of community law, ECJ judgments overrule those of national courts. The ECJ sits at Luxembourg.

European Parliament

A directly elected body which is an institution of the European Union. It plays a significant role in the European Community legislative process, though it is not a legislative body in the same way as the UK Parliament. For example, it does not have sole law making power, though it does have an increasing role of co-decision with the Council of Ministers.

European Union (EU)

The EU was formally brought into being by the Maastricht Treaty 1991 but reflects the social, political, economic and geographical growth of the European project initiated by the Treaty of Rome 1957. Today it brings together 27 Member States. The EU is governed by four institutions and is responsible for European Community law.


A term that represents the government of the day, and particularly the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet of senior Ministers. It is the administration that runs the country and is one of the three organs of the state along with the judiciary and the legislature.


Fast track

One of three tracks that determine the way in which claims are dealt with by the court. The fast claims track refers to claims with a value of over £5,000 but less than £15,000, provided that the trial is likely to last no longer than a day.


Golden rule

A common law rule of statutory interpretation. It is a modification of the literal rule and is used to avoid absurdity. The courts may only use the golden rule if there are genuine difficulties in applying the literal rule.


High Court of Justice

Often referred to as the High Court, this is a civil court, divided into the Chancery Division, the Family Division and the Queen's Bench Division. It acts as both a Court of First Instance and an appellate court. The High Court sits at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

House of Lords

Parliamentary chamber, referred to as the Upper House. It is the highest appellate court in England and Wales until it was replaced by the Supreme Court in 2009.


Indictable offences

Serious criminal offences, including murder and rape, that are tried before judge and jury in a Crown Court. Some criminal offences of intermediate seriousness, known as either way offences, can be tried either as summary offences (by magistrates) or on indictment (Crown Court).


The court document that formally lists the offences with which the accused in a criminal trial is charged.


Formal investigations set up on an ad hoc basis to investigate specific incidents. Their role is fact-finding.


A system of criminal justice that operates in some European countries but not in England and Wales. Unlike the adversarial system, the judge acts as ‘inquisitor’, playing an active role in the proceedings and, for example, examining witnesses.

Interests of justice test

The first stage of a process used to establish eligibility for criminal legal aid; a test to determine whether it will be in the interests of justice to grant the applicant legal representation. This stage is also known as the ‘merits test’.



A person appointed by the Crown whose role, in all legal cases, is to manage the case and to ensure that the evidence is properly admitted and the legal arguments are heard. The role of the judge differs according to the type of case being tried or appeal being heard.


The decision of a judge, which usually sets out his or her legal reasoning. If more than one judge is sitting, there may be a number of judgments.

Judicial independence

The principle that the judiciary should be permitted to act independently of the other main organs of government, namely the executive and the legislature.

Judicial precedent

The principle that courts are bound by the previous decisions of the same, or superior, courts. A decision can be binding, which means that the court must follow it, or (if it is a decision of, for example, the Privy Council) it can be persuasive, in which case it should be considered, but need not necessarily be followed.

Judicial review

This occurs when a member of the public, a concerned body or a pressure group challenges a decision of a government minister in the Administrative Court of the High Court (Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division) in the hope of obtaining a remedy. It shows the separation of powers in action, with judges keeping a check on executive power.

Judicial Studies Board (JSB)

The body responsible for training judges and lay magistrates. The JSB is independent of the government.


The collective term for the judges who adjudicate on cases before the courts. It represents one of the powers of the British constitution.


A panel of lay members who have been randomly selected to sit in court to determine the findings of fact in the case laid before them. In criminal law, they come to a verdict on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In civil law, they determine liability and the amount of damages to be awarded. Generally, juries sit in panels of 12.

Jury vetting

Investigations carried out on jurors in order to establish whether they are suitable for jury service.

Justice of the Peace (JP)

Another term for a magistrate. They have no formal legal qualifications and are not paid for their services. JPs have limited sentencing powers.

Justice's clerk

A qualified lawyer who assists lay justices (magistrates) in respect of the law, practice and procedure.


Law centres

Community organisations offering free legal advice when needed.

Law Lord

A judge who usually sits in the House of Lords. The proper title is Lord of Appeal in Ordinary.

Law Officer

The main legal advisors to the Government, There are two Lord Officers in England and Wales, the Attorney General and his or her deputy, the Solicitor General. Also known as Law Officers of the Crown.

Law Society

The governing body for the solicitors' branch of the legal profession.


A popular term used to describe someone who practices law, It usually refers to a solicitor or a barrister, but could also include anyone who is involved in the legal profession.

Legal aid

Free legal assistance given to those who qualify for it. Legal aid is only available in certain types of cases, and only if the applicant meets the financial criteria set out at the time of application.

Legal executive

A member or fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX). Some legal executives carry out similar work to solicitors and have some equivalent rights. This is a branch of the legal profession that can be joined upon leaving school rather than following a degree, and qualifications are gained whilst employed.

Legal Practice Course (LPC)

A post-graduate vocational course to train law students, or those students who have converted to law via the Common Professional Examination/Graduate Diploma in Law, to become solicitors. Following the LPC, students must complete a training contract in order to practice as a solicitor.


Any form of written law. In the English legal system, it can be divided into primary legislation, in the form of Acts of Parliament (statute law), and secondary legislation, in the form of delegated legislation (mainly statutory instruments).


The primary law-making body in the constitution. In English law, the legislature refers to the Parliament at Westminster. It is one of the three organs of government, the others being the executive and the judiciary. The legislature makes primary legislation.

Literal rule

A common law rule of statutory interpretation. If the wording in a statute is clear, it may be applied literally, which means that it must be given its ordinary meaning.

Lord Chancellor

A senior member of the Cabinet. Following the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor's office is ministerial rather than judicial and is combined with the role of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. The Lord Chancellor will continue to have duties relating to the administration of justice, but not in a judicial capacity. (The Lord Chancellor was formerly head of the judiciary and Speaker of the House of Lords, whilst also a Cabinet minister. Following the reforms he or she retains only the latter position.)

Lord Chief Justice

The head of the judiciary in England and Wales. Following the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chief Justice is the President of the Courts of England and Wales. He or she is responsible both for the welfare and training of the judiciary and for representing the views of the judiciary to Parliament.

Lords of Appeal in Ordinary

The 12 senior appeal court judges in the House of Lords who hear the most important civil and criminal appeals. Following full implementation of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 they will become Justices of the Supreme Court. They are popularly referred to as Law Lords.

Lords/Lady Justices of Appeal

Judges in the Civil and Criminal Divisions of the Court of Appeal.



Lay justice who sits in the magistrates' court. Magistrates have no formal legal qualifications, are not paid for their services and have limited sentencing powers. Also known as a Justice of the Peace.

Magistrates' court

The lowest court in the court hierarchy. It is presided over by lay magistrates or district judges. Most of a magistrates' business relates to criminal matters.

Master of the Rolls

One of the most senior judges in the English legal system. The Master of the Rolls is the Head of the Civil Court of Appeal.

Means test

The second stage of a process used to establish eligibility for criminal legal aid; a test to measure the applicant's financial resources. It is only taken after the applicant has passed the interests of justice test.


A means of settling disputes without having to go to court. An independent third party, the mediator, acts as a medium through which the parties can communicate and negotiate in order to settle their differences.

Mischief rule

One of the common law rules of statutory interpretation. It requires the judge to take into account the 'mischief' or problem the Act was aimed at remedying, which helps him or her to interpret the meaning of the statute.


One of three tracks that determine the way in which claims are dealt with by the courts. The multi-track applies to all claims not falling within the financial limits of the small claims or fast tracks and/or complex cases.


Natural justice

The rules of justice inherent in reaching any decision, whether made by a court or an administrative body. It implies a sense of ‘fair play’ in proceedings. Bias in proceedings would breach the rules of natural justice, as would a decision made without first hearing both sides of a case.


A resolution process whereby a compromise is made and an agreement reached between parties. An ability to negotiate is a key skill for a lawyer, as effective negotiations before litigation may mean that the parties resolve their differences and do not have to resort to going to court.

Noscitur a sociis

A rule of language that is used in statutory interpretation. It is often described as meaning that “a word is known by the company it keeps”. Effectively, it means that the words in a statute should be read in context.


Obiter dicta

Statements made by judges in the course of making a decision that do not form part of the ratio decidendi of the case. They are statements made as an aside, almost in passing. Although not binding, they are of persuasive authority.


An official, usually appointed by Parliament, who hears complaints from individuals about maladministration in both the public and private sectors.

Orders in Council

A form of delegated legislation made by the Privy Council.

Overriding objective

The primary aim of the court, which is to deal with cases justly. This includes ensuring that cases are dealt with expeditiously and with proportionality.


This relates to the doctrine of precedent. When a judge exercises the power to depart from a previous decision and expressly overturns that previous decision, he or she is said to have ‘overruled’ the decision, meaning that it is no longer good law.



General term for those working in a clerical and support capacity in a legal firm. Many students, after completing their Legal Practice or Bar Vocational Courses will work as a paralegal, before finding a training contract or pupillage.


Where primary legislation is made in the English legal system. It is the institution that represents the legislature in the constitution. Parliament consists of two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Parliamentary sovereignty

The view that Parliament is the supreme law making body in the constitution.

Persuasive authority

Decisions which a lower court may not need to apply under the doctrine of precedent. Courts are bound to follow the decisions of higher courts, and sometimes of courts of equal standing. However, decisions of the Privy Council, for example, although authoritative, are not binding. This means that the lower court should consider the decision, but is not necessarily bound to follow it.


A declaration made by a defendant at the outset of a criminal trial stating whether he or she is guilty or not guilty. This process is described as ‘entering a plea’ or as ‘pleading’ guilty or not guilty.

Practice Direction

A published statement that sets out the relevant procedure for courts to follow. It is intended to ensure uniformity in proceedings.

Pre-action protocol

Protocols which encourage the parties to exchange information at an early stage in their dispute, before court proceedings have been commenced. The aim is to encourage parties to settle their disputes without the need for litigation.


The doctrine that provides that lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts. This means that if the lower court has a case before it which is similar to a previous decision of a higher court, it must follow the higher court's decision unless it has good reasons for departing from it. Courts are sometimes also bound by decisions of courts at the same level.

Precedent can also be used to describe the ratio decidendi, or legal principle, of a case.

Private law

Law relating to the relationships between private individuals, rather than an individual and the State: for example, contract law, the law of torts, property law and family law.

Privy Council

A very old part of government with various functions, including monitoring the work of companies and bodies incorporated by Royal Charter. Its Judicial Committee acts as a final court of appeal in some Commonwealth countries. Many of the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary sit on the Privy Council Judicial Committee. Decisions of the Privy Council are persuasive rather than binding on English courts.

Pro bono

Unpaid legal work by a member of the legal professions.

Public Defender Service (PDS)

A new service designed to provide salaried lawyers who are paid to defend those accused of criminal offences.

Public law

Law relating to the functions of the State, and the relationship between an individual and the State, rather than between private individuals. For example, constitutional law and administrative law.

Puisne judges

Judges of the High Court. These are more often simply referred to as High Court judges. ‘Puisne’ is pronounced ‘pewnee’.


The year long period when trainee barristers, referred to as pupils, work with an experienced barrister. This training takes place prior to qualification as a barrister.


Queen's Counsel (QC)

An experienced barrister who is deemed to have excelled in advocacy. QCs are appointed by the Queen's Counsel Selection Panel. Also referred to as a ‘silk’.


Ratio decidendi

The key to the doctrine of judicial precedent; the legal reasoning for the decision in a case and the element of a judicial decision which forms the binding precedent for future cases.


A part-time judge, who is also an experienced solicitor or barrister. A recorder can sit in both Crown or county courts, and hears the less complex cases. Becoming a recorder is often the first step towards becoming a full-time judge.


A term to refer to the Queen. In criminal cases, the Crown brings the prosecution, hence the name of the case: Regina (‘R’) v X. If the monarch is a king, it becomes Rex (‘R’) v X.

Rights of audience

The right of an advocate to appear before a court and address it. On qualification, barristers have rights of audience in all courts. Solicitors, however, must undertake further training if they wish to appear in the higher courts.

Royal Assent

The final stage required for a Bill to become an Act. The Queen gives her approval by convention.


Secondary legislation

Legislation passed under powers delegated by Parliament, rather than by Parliament itself. Secondary legislation is generally much quicker to produce than primary legislation. It is often used to fill in the detail of an Act of Parliament.

Separation of powers

A constitutional theory which requires that the three principal powers in the constitution (the executive, judiciary and legislature) are kept separate so that they may exercise checks and balances on each other. In the UK, unlike the USA with its written constitution, there is a degree of ‘fusion’ rather than clear separation (for example, the executive can be found within the legislature).

Small claims track

One of three ‘tracks’ that determine the way in which claims are dealt with by the courts. The small claims track refers to smaller claims, worth £5,000 or less (£1,000 for personal injury). Claims with a value of over £5,000 but less than £15,000 are referred to the fast track, provided that the trial is likely to last no longer than a day.


One of the two branches of the legal profession in England and Wales; the other being a barrister. Traditionally, solicitors engaged less in oral advocacy in the courts. However, solicitors may now undertake additional training in order to gain full rights of audience in court. Solicitors are governed by the Law Society.


A solicitor who has undertaken additional training in order to gain full rights of audience in court.

Solicitor General

A government legal officer who acts as a deputy to the Attorney General.

Stare decisis

The fundamental principle of the doctrine of precedent, literally meaning ‘let the decision stand’. According to this doctrine, lower courts are required to follow the decisions of higher courts unless they have a very good reason for departing from them. Sometimes courts are also bound by decisions of other courts at the same level.


Another term for an Act of Parliament.

Statutory instrument

A piece of secondary legislation, passed under powers delegated by Parliament rather than passing through Parliament itself.

Statutory interpretation

The interpretation by the courts of Acts of Parliament. A number of common law rules have developed to assist judges in interpreting statutes (such as the literal rule, golden rule and mischief rule). Intrinsic and extrinsic aids can also sometimes be used.

Summary offences

Minor criminal offences that are tried before a magistrates' court.

Supreme Court

The highest court in the court system of England and Wales. It replaced the House of Lords in 2009.


Training contract

A contract with (usually) a firm of solicitors which agrees to provide on the job training to a student wanting to be a solicitor. It is taken up after completion of both the academic and vocational stages of training. The training contract usually lasts for two years and, if completed satisfactorily, entitles the student to practice as a qualified solicitor.

Treasury Solicitor

A senior lawyer who advises the Government on a variety of legal matters. He or she heads the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the largest department of the Government Legal Service.


An international agreement. In European Community law, treaties are examples of primary legislation and provide broad statements of law in the form of Articles. Treaty provisions give rise to vertical and horizontal direct effect.

Triable either way offence

Serious offences which can be tried either in a magistrate's court or at the Crown Court.


A body established by an Act of Parliament which is less formal than a court. It decides claims relating to disputes about various legislative matters. For example, an employment tribunal hears disputes between employers and employees, and applies the relevant employment legislation in reaching its decision.


Woolf reforms

Reforms to the civil justice system proposed by the Rt Hon Lord Woolf in 1996. His aim was to ensure that the civil justice system continued to be fair, but also to make it quicker, more efficient and less expensive.