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Legal system and profession in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is made up of four countries. The countries come under three distinct and separate jurisdictions. They are England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Each jurisdiction has its own court system and legal profession. The United Kingdom was established in 1801 with the union of Great Britain and Ireland. However, it achieved its present form in 1922 with the partition of Ireland. The Irish Free State (which later became the Republic of Ireland) was thus established.

The UK joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973. Upon joining the EEC (now EU), two things have become compulsory – a. to incorporate European legislation into UK law, and b. to recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in matters of EU law.

Separate and distinct Legislatures for each country

There have been significant constitutional reforms since the Labour government came into power in 1997. The Labour government immediately started a process of devolution, i.e. shifting / transferring certain areas of government to the countries forming the UK. A separate Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly were established on the basis of popular votes or referendums in the countries concerned. Ireland already had its Assembly, although this was not in operation. As these new distinct legislatures were established, the English Parliament is often referred to as ‘Westminster’ to show its distinct identity.

UK law and the European Convention on Human Rights

The UK has signed the European Convention of Human Rights. In 1998, The Human Rights Act was passed in the UK through which the European Convention of Human Rights was incorporated into UK law. Thus, the provisions of the Convention can be applied directly by the UK courts.

No written constitution

There is no written constitution. The Queen is the Head of State. But in practice, the supreme authority of the Crown is vested in the government which carries out all the executive functions.

Bicameral Parliament

The legislature is a bicameral Parliament, meaning the parliament is made up of two Houses – The House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons consists of 659 Members of Parliament (MPs), elected by simple majority vote in a general election every five years. However, the Government has the right to call an election at any time before then. In practice, the Government usually brings the date forward to gain electoral advantage. Until recently, an exception to the electoral system was The House of Lords granting membership on certain grounds, such as achievement in public service and aristocratic birth.

Composition of UK constitutional law

The constitutional law of the UK consists of statute law (law made by the State) on the one hand and case law on the other. Judicial precedent (a legal decision that serves as a guide or a pattern or a rule to be applied in similar cases in the future) is applied in the courts by judges while interpreting statute law. In addition, constitutional conventions exist which do not have statutory authority but nevertheless have binding force. Much of the relationship between the Sovereign and Parliament is conventional rather than statutory.

Classification in the sixteenth century

By the mid-sixteenth century there were two branches of the legal profession – a) barristers, and b) attorneys and solicitors. Traditionally solicitors dealt with landed estates. On the other hand, attorneys advised parties in lawsuits. Gradually, these two roles combined and the name ‘solicitors’ was adopted.

Although there were many eminent solicitors, there were also ‘pettifoggers and vipers’ (impostors) disgracing the profession.

The Law Institution in 1823

In 1823, several prominent attorneys met to establish the ‘The London Law Institution’ to raise the reputation of the legal profession by setting standards and ensuring good practice. This would be set up near the Inns of Court. By 1825 the term ‘London’ was dropped from the title to show the Institution wanted to make the legal profession, a better one, not only in London, but at the national level.

The Society in 1825

The Society was founded on 2 June 1825, when a committee of management was appointed. The Society acquired its first royal charter in 1831, and opened a new building in Chancery Lane, in 1832. A new Charter in 1845 defined the Society as an independent, private body servicing the affairs of the profession like other professional, literary and scientific bodies.

The organisation became known colloquially as the Law Society although its first formal title was ‘The Society of Attorneys, Solicitors, Proctors and others not being Barristers, practising in the Courts of Law and Equity of the United Kingdom’. In 1903, the Society changed its official name to ‘The Law Society’.

Present position

Women were first admitted as solicitors in 1922.  Today, more than half the people involved in this profession are women. Over the years, the ruling Council of elected office holders and members has grown in size. Seats have been created to reflect the composition and interests of the members. Originally 25, today there are 105 Council members.

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