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High Court of Justice


The High Court of Justice in England 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 consists of three divisions: the Queen's Bench Division, the Chancery Division, and the Family Division. Their 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.

In principle the High Court is bound by its own previous decisions, but there are conflicting authorities as to what extent this is so. 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 (the House of Lords before 2009); 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 of Justice was established in 1875 by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873. The Act merged eight existing English courts´the Court of Chancery, the Court of Queen's Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of Exchequer, the High Court of Admiralty, the Court of Probate, the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, and the London Court of Bankruptcy´into a new Supreme Court of Judicature (now known as the Senior Courts of England and Wales). The new Supreme Court was divided into the Court of Appeal, which exercised appellate jurisdiction, and the High Court, which exercised original jurisdiction.

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. 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 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.

The formation within the High Court of The Business and Property Courts of England & Wales was announced in March 2017, and launched in London in July 2017. The courts would in future administer the specialist jurisdictions previously administered in the Queen's Bench Division under the names of the Admiralty Court, the Commercial Court, and the Technology and Construction Court, and in the Chancery Division under the lists for Business, Company and Insolvency, Competition, Financial, Intellectual Property, Revenue, and Trusts and Probate. The change was meant to enable judges who have suitable expertise and experience in the specialist business and property jurisdictions to be cross-deployed to sit in the specialist courts, while continuing existing practices for cases that proceed in them.

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 in 1971 when the admiralty and contentious probate business were transferred elsewhere.

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.