The legal system in England and Wales
The description which follows applies to England and Wales (and, with a few minor differences to Northern Ireland). Only the court functions concerning health and safety are mentioned. Figure 1.2 shows the court hierarchy in schematic form.
1.4.1 Criminal Law
Most criminal cases begin and end in the Magistrates Courts. Health and safety cases are brought before the court by enforcement officers (Health and Safety Executive or Local Authority Environmental Health Officers) and they are tried by a bench of three lay magistrates (known as Justices of the Peace) or a single district judge. The lay magistrates are members of the public, usually with little previous experience of the law, whereas a district judge is legally qualified.
Figure 1.2 The court system in England and Wales relevant to health and safety.
The Magistrates Court has limited powers with a maximum fine of £5000 (for employees) to £20 000 for employers or for those who ignore prohibition notices. Magistrates are also able to imprison for up to six months for breaches of enforcement notices. The vast majority of health and safety criminal cases are dealt with in the Magistrates Court.
The Crown Court hears the more serious cases, which are passed to them from the Magistrates Court – normally because the sentences available to the magistrates are felt to be too lenient. Cases are heard by a judge and jury, although some cases are heard by a judge alone. The penalties available to the Crown Court are an unlimited fine and up to two years imprisonment for breaches of enforcement notices. The Crown Court also hears appeals from the Magistrates Court.
Appeals from the Crown Court are made to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) who may then give leave to appeal to the most senior court in the country – the House of Lords. The most senior judge at the Court of Appeal is the Lord Chief Justice.
1.4.2 Civil Law
The lowest court in civil law is the County Court which only deals with minor cases (for compensation claims of up to £50000 if the High Court agrees). Cases are normally heard by a judge sitting alone. For personal injury claims of less than £5000, a small claims court is also available.
Most health and safety civil cases are heard in the High Court (Queens Bench Division) before a judge only. It deals with compensation claims in excess of £50 000 and acts as an appeal court for the County Court.
Appeals from the High Court are made to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division). The House of Lords receives appeals from the Court of Appeal or, on matters of law interpretation, directly from the High Court. The most senior judge at the Court of Appeal is the Master of the Rolls,
The judges in the House of Lords are called Law Lords and are sometimes called upon to make judgements on points of law, which are then binding on lower courts. Such judgements form the basis of Common Law, which is covered later.
Other courts – Employment Tribunals
These were established in 1964 and primarily deal with employment and conditions of service issues, such as unfair dismissal. However, they also deal with appeals over health and safety enforcement notices, disputes between recognized safety represen¬tatives and their employers and cases of unfair dismissal involving health and safety issues. There are usually three members who sit on a Tribunal. These members are appointed and are often not legally qualified. Appeals from the Tribunal may be made to the Employment Appeal Tribunal or, in the case of enforcement notices, to the High Court. Appeals from Tribunals can only deal with the clarification of points of law.