The Justices of the Supreme Court hear about 70 cases each year and these are appeals. They can be both civil and criminal cases. A case can only be appealed to the Supreme Court if there is a specific point of law involved. Many civil cases involve complicated and technical areas of law such as planning law or tax law. The Justices of the Supreme Court must sit as an uneven number panel with a minimum of three judges to hear a case. They usually sit as a panel of five or seven. Any decision of the Supreme Court on a point of law will become a precedent for lower courts to follow.
The Lords Justices of Appeal sit in both the civil and criminal divisions of the Court of Appeal which means that they deal with both civil and criminal cases. They also have a heavier workload than the Supreme Court. In the Criminal division, they hear over 7000 applications for leave to appeal against sentence or conviction. They are all dealt with by one judge. Court of Appeal Judges usually sit as a panel of three to hear cases. There may be a panel of five in important cases. Decisions by the Court of Appeal on points of law will become precedent that lower courts must follow. The Court of Appeal has a heavy workload so High Court Judges are often used to form part of the panel. For example, one Lord Justice of Appeal may be sitting with two High Court Judges.
The High Court Judges’ main function is to try cases and these are known as cases at ‘first instance’ due to the fact that the case has been heard in court for the first time. They will hear evidence from witnesses, decide what the law is and make the decision as to which side has won the case. If the claim is for damages, meaning a certain amount of money, the judge will decide how much should be awarded to the winning claimant. When first instance cases are being heard, judges sit on their own. In the Queen’s Bench Division there may be a jury but this is rare. These are mainly civil cases tried in the County Court. The judges in the Queen’s Bench Division also hear criminal appeals from the Magistrates’ Courts. When judges are sitting to hear appeals, there will be a panel of two or three judges. Judges from the Queen’s Bench Division also sit to hear criminal trials in the Crown Court. When they do this, they sit with a jury. The jury decides the facts and the judge decides the law that applies to that case. Where a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by a jury, the judge then has to decide on the sentence.
Circuit Judges sit in the County Court to hear civil cases as well as in the Crown Court to try criminal cases. In civil cases they sit on their own and they decide the law and the facts. It is very rare to have a jury in a civil case in the County Court. They also make the decision on who has won the case and decide the amount of damages to be awarded to the winning party or anything else that is appropriate to the case. In criminal cases they sit with a jury and the jury decides the facts and the judge decides the law that applies to that case. Where a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by the jury, the judge has to decide the sentence.
Recorders are part-time judges who are appointed for a period of five years. They are used mainly in the Crown Court to try criminal cases, but there are