The renaissance stressed upon the secular nature of justice and the sovereign character of secular State was regarded indispensible for imparting even-handed justice. However, with the growing power of the King’s Bench in subsequent years, the power of the cannonical courts declined and a variety of new courts were set up for the administration of criminal justice. The chief among these courts which still continue to this day are:—
1. The House of Lords:
House of Lords was the highest Court in the hierarchy of British Judicial Courts for the administration of criminal justice until October 2000. It exercised both, original and appellate jurisdiction. Prior to 1907, only those cases could be referred to House of Lords in appeal which involved intricate questions of law.
But with the passing of Criminal Appellate Courts Act, 1907, the appeals from criminal cases could be referred to the Court of Criminal Appeal whereas the cases which were of public interest and certified by the Attorney-General, were referred to House of Lords. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 1961 further modified the appellate powers of House of Lords and it could take up any appeal from Criminal Appeal Court or Divisional Court of Queen’s Bench for adjudication.
As regards the original jurisdiction of House of Lords, it had the power to try any person who was impeached by the House of Commons. Prior to the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, the original jurisdiction of House of Lords extended only to the cases of peers who were charged with treason or felony.
Earlier, the House of Lords was bound by its former decisions on questions of law. However, on July 26, 1966 Lord Chancellor made a policy statement to the effect that the House of Lords, while treating their former decisions as normally binding, will depart from them when it may appear right to do so.
Accordingly, the House of Lords departed from its earlier judgment given in Duncan v. Carumell Laird and Co. while deciding the case of Conwey v. Rinomer in 1968 in which it was decided that the Courts have a right to question the finality of Minister’s certificate as regards non-production of a document on the ground of Crown’s privilege. Thus, the House of Lords is now no longer bound by its earlier decision.
It must, however, be stated that the House of Lords which functioned as the highest judicial institution of Britain for more than six centuries, lost its judicial status with the constitution of the Supreme Court in which the twelve law lords who were hitherto discharging judicial functions in the House of Lords would hold judicial proceeding in the Supreme Court located in Middlesex of the Parliament Square London.
This change has bene introduced in UK from 1st October 2009 with the purpose of bringing about complete separation of judicial functions from the executive. Though the law relating to constitution of the Supreme Court in UK had been passed in 2005, it could be implemented only four years later. With this changes the House of Lords will now function only as an executive institution.
2. The Court of Criminal Appeal:
The Court of Criminal Appeal ranks next to the House of Lords in the hierarchy of British Criminal Courts. This court is exclusively meant for deciding appeals preferred by the accused person against his conviction by the subordinate court in case a substantial question of law is involved.
The Court of Criminal Appeal must either allow the appeal and quash the conviction or dismiss the appeal, but has no power to order re-trial of the case. From the decision of this Court either parties may move in appeal to the House of Lords provided leave to appeal is granted by the Court of Appeal itself or by the House of Lords.
3. Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court:
Next in the descending order of the criminal courts is the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court. The Court exercises both, original as well as appellate jurisdiction. From the decisions of Quarter Session both parties may appeal to the High Court on a point of law and the case is heard by the Judges of the Queen’s Bench Division. However, both the sides may appeal directly from the Magistrate’s Court to the High Court bypassing the Quarter Sessions, in case a point of law is involved in the case.
4. Assize Court:
Serious indictable offences are tried by the Assize Court. These are mobile courts holding Quarter Sessions in counties. Assize Court consists of a Commissioner, usually a High Court Judge appointed by Letters Patent. The county is divided into circuits, Assizes being held in each county and in some large towns on the circuit. Ordinary offences are triable at Quarter Sessions which are held in each county.
The County Quarter Session is usually presided by a chairman who is qualified in legal practice, usually a practising barrister who performs this public duty part-time. However, there exist permanent Sessions in London, Liverpool and Manchester where the Judges are whole-time officials. These courts are not empowered to decide cases of treason, murder, conspiracy, bribery, blasphemy, forgery, perjury or libel, which are punishable with imprisonment for life.
5. The Central Criminal Court of London:
The Central Criminal Court functions as a permanent Assize Court and decides criminal cases within the territorial jurisdiction of metropolitan city of London and its suburbs.
6. The Magistrate’s Court:
Lowest in the hierarchy of criminal courts are the court of petty Magistrates who usually try petty summary offences not punishable with more than six months’ imprisonment. The majority of the offences can only be dealt with summarily in a Magistrate’s court. In case of summary offences punishable with three months’ imprisonment or more, the accused may be tried by jury if he so desires. Quite a large number of cases are tried in the Magistrate’s courts.
These courts consist of non-lawyers appointed for each county and large towns by the Lord Chancellor on the recommendation of local committees. The proceedings in the Magistrate’s Court are quick and informal. The parties usually appear in person. The prosecutor usually a police officer, conducts the prosecution case and the defendant has his own advocate. Both the sides can, however, be represented by counsel or solicitor. The formalities of wigs and gowns are considered unnecessary in these courts.