Her Majesty's High Court of Justice in England (usually known as the High Court of Justice of England and Wales, the High Court of Justice or, simply, the High Court) is, together with the Court of Appeal and the Crown Court, one of the Senior Courts of England and Wales. Its name is abbreviated as EWHC for legal citation purposes.
The High Court deals at first instance with all high value and high importance cases, and also has a supervisory jurisdiction over all subordinate courts and tribunals, with a few statutory exceptions.
It has three main divisions: the Queen's Bench Division, the Chancery Division, and the Family Division. The jurisdictions overlap in some cases, and cases started in one division may be transferred by court order to another where appropriate. The differences of procedure and practice between divisions are partly historical, derived from the separate courts which were merged into the single High Court by the 19th-century Judicature Acts, but are mainly driven by the usual nature of their work, for example, conflicting evidence of fact is quite commonly given in person in the Queen's Bench Division, but evidence by affidavit is more usual in the Chancery Division which is primarily concerned with points of law.
Most High Court proceedings are heard by a single judge, but certain kinds of proceedings, especially in the Queen's Bench Division, are assigned to a Divisional Court, a bench of two or more judges. Exceptionally the court may sit with a jury, but in practice normally only in defamation cases or cases against the police. Litigants are normally represented by counsel, but may be represented by solicitors qualified to hold a right of audience, or they may act in person.
In principle the High Court is bound by its own previous decisions, but there are conflicting authorities as to what extent. Appeal from the High Court in civil matters normally lies to the Court of Appeal, and thence in cases of importance to the Supreme Court; in some cases a "leapfrog" appeal may be made directly to the Supreme Court. In criminal matters appeals from the Queen's Bench Divisional Court are made directly to the Supreme Court.
The High Court is based at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in the City of Westminster, London. It has district registries across England and Wales and almost all High Court proceedings may be issued and heard at a district registry. The High Court is headed by the Lord Chief Justice.
The High Court is organised into three divisions: the Queen's Bench Division, the Chancery Division, and the Family Division. A list of hearings in the High Court's divisions is published daily.
The Queen's Bench Division – or King's Bench Division when the monarch is male – has two roles. It hears a wide range of common law cases and also has special responsibility as a supervisory court. Until 2005, the head of the QBD was the Lord Chief Justice (currently Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd). The post of President of the Queen's Bench Division was created by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, leaving the Lord Chief Justice as President of the Courts of England and Wales, Head of the Judiciary of England and Wales and Head of Criminal Justice. Sir Igor Judge was the first person to hold this office, appointed in October 2005.
The Queen's Bench Division has supervisory jurisdiction over inferior courts, and its Administrative Court is generally the appropriate legal forum where the validity (but, at least in principle, not the merits) of official decisions may be challenged. Generally, unless specific appeal processes are provided, the validity of any decision of an government minister, inferior court, tribunal, local authority or official body may be challenged by someone with sufficient interest by judicial review in the Administrative Court of the Queen's Bench Division. A single judge first decides whether the matter is fit to bring to the court (to filter out frivolous or unarguable cases) and if so the matter is allowed to go forward to a full judicial review hearing with one or more judges.
In addition, the Queen's Bench Divisional Court hears appeals on points of law from the Magistrates' Court and from the Crown Court. These are known as appeals by way of case stated, since the questions of law are considered solely on the basis of the facts found and stated by the authority under review.
Other specialised courts of the Queen's Bench Division include the Technology and Construction Court, Commercial Court, and the Admiralty Court. The specialised judges and procedures of these courts are tailored to their type of business, but they are not essentially different from any other court of the QBD.
Appeals from the High Court in civil matters are made to the Court of Appeal (Civil Division); in criminal matters appeal from the Divisional Court is made only to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
The Chancery Division (housed in the Rolls Building) deals with business law, trusts law, probate law, insolvency, and land law in relation to issues of equity. It has specialist courts (the Patents Court and the Companies Court) which deal with patents and registered designs and company law matters respectively. All tax appeals are assigned to the Chancery Division. The head of the Chancery Division was known as the Vice-Chancellor until October 2005, when the title was changed by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to Chancellor of the High Court. The first Chancellor (and the last Vice-Chancellor) was Sir Andrew Morritt, who retired in 2013 to be succeeded by Sir Terence Etherton. In 2016, Sir Geoffrey Vos succeeded Sir Terence as Chancellor on the latter's appointment as Master of the Rolls. Cases heard before the Chancery Division are reported in the Chancery Division law reports. In practice, there is some overlap of jurisdiction with the QBD.
From October 2015, the Chancery Division and the Commercial Court (England and Wales) have maintained the Financial List for cases which would benefit from being heard by judges with suitable expertise and experience in the financial markets or which raise issues of general importance to the financial markets. The procedure was introduced to enable fast, efficient and high quality dispute resolution of claims related to the financial markets.
The Family Division deals with personal human matters such as divorce, children, probate and medical treatment. Its decisions are often of great importance only to the parties, but may concern life and death and are perhaps inevitably regarded as controversial. For example, it permitted a hospital to separate conjoined twins without the parents' consent; and allowed one woman to have her life support machines turned off, while not permitting a husband to give his severely disabled wife a lethal injection with her consent. The Family Division exercises jurisdiction to hear all cases relating to children's welfare, and has an exclusive jurisdiction in wardship cases. Its head is the President of the Family Division, currently Sir James Munby. High Court Judges of the Family Division sit at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London, while District Judges of the Family Division sit at First Avenue House, Holborn, London.
The Family Division is comparatively modern. The Judicature Acts first combined the Court of Probate, the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes and the High Court of Admiralty into the then Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, or The Court of Wills, Wives & Wrecks, as it was informally called. That was renamed the Family Division when the admiralty and contentious probate business were transferred elsewhere.
Abusive partners are sometimes allowed to cross examine their victims in extremely stressful ways. Peter Kyle described it as “abuse and brutalisation” by the legal system of women. “Mothers need the protection of the law and they need to know in advance that the system is there to look out and protect their interests,” Kyle said. “It only takes one woman to be placed in a situation where she can be legally be asked by the man who has violently abused her; ‘When did you last have sex?’. That only has to happen once to realise that the system is corrupted and domestic abuse is going on in our system in the courtroom.”This is to change.
The High Court only operates within four traditional periods in the year, known as sittings:Michaelmas
: 1 October to 21 December
: 11 January to the Wednesday before Easter
: the second Tuesday after Easter to the Friday before the Spring bank holiday (last Monday in May)
: the second Tuesday after the spring holiday to 31 July
The Justices of Her Majesty's High Court of Justice are informally known as High Court judges, and in judicial matters are formally styled "The Honourable Mr(s) Justice (Forename) Surname", abbreviated in writing to "Surname J". In Court, they are properly addressed as My Lord, often pronounced M'lud. Since by convention they are knighted upon appointment, socially they are addressed as Sir Forename or Dame Forename, without the prefix, The Hon., which is given only to their office. High Court Judges are sometimes referred to as red judges after the colour of their formal robes, in contrast to the junior Circuit Judges who are referred to as purple judges for the same reason.
High Court judges are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of Judicial Appointments Commission, from qualified lawyers. HM Government is statutorily required to respect the principle of judicial independence, and both Houses of Parliament have Standing Orders to similar effect. High Court Judges may be removed before their statutory retirement age only by a procedure requiring the approval of both Houses of Parliament.
In addition to full High Court judges, other qualified persons such as retired judges, Circuit Judges and senior Queen's Counsel are individually authorised to sit as Deputy Judges of the High Court to hear particular cases, and while sitting are addressed as though they were full justices. Much judicial work concerned with procedural or non-contentious matters and certain trials are conducted by junior judges known (whether male or female) as "Masters of the High Court".
High Court judges also sit in the Crown Court, which try the more significant criminal cases, but High Court Judges only hear the most serious and important cases, with Circuit Judges and Recorders hearing the majority.
Historically the ultimate source of all justice in England was the monarch. All judges sit in judgement on the monarch's behalf (hence they have the royal coat of arms displayed behind them) and criminal prosecutions are generally made in the monarch's name. Historically, local magnates administered justice in Manorial Courts and other ways. Inevitably, the justice administered was patchy and appeals were made direct to the King. The King's travelling representatives (whose primary purpose was tax collection) acted on behalf of the king to make the administration of justice more even.
The tradition continues of judges travelling around the country in set 'circuits', where they hear cases in the 'district registries' of the High Court. The 'main' High Court (in the City of Westminster, London) is not itself a High Court district registry.
The Senior Courts Costs Office, which quantifies legal costs pursuant to orders for costs, serves all divisions. Such Costs Office is part of the High Court. Because the Costs Office is part of the High Court, generally all detailed assessment proceedings commenced in the Costs Office are subject to provisional assessment. Exceptions from provisional assessment are detailed assessment proceedings in which the costs claimed are large (greater than £75,000) or in which the potential paying party does not respond to the notice of assessment.