Information about civil litigation

Information about civil litigation in England

Although the highest court in the land - the Supreme Court - is a UK-wide court, below that different legal systems apply in the different countries of the United Kingdom. The law and the court and tribunal system in Northern Ireland is different from Scotland and both are different from England and Wales. Technically England and Wales are still a single jurisdiction in terms of courts, but on the tribunal side there are some England-only and some Wales-only tribunals, and differences are emerging in the laws of Wales, and the laws of England, notably laws affecting land and the provision of public services, as a result of legislation passed by the Welsh Assembly. The following information is about court and tribunal procedure in England only.

The civil courts in England are the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) and, below that, the High Court which has two civil divisions, the Chancery Division and the Queen's Bench Division.

The history of the divisions of the High Court

The origin of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court is the Court of King's Bench which historically tried cases which concerned the King either because they were criminal cases (offences against the King's peace), complaints against the King's officials, or claims by the King for money owed to him by subjects. Nowadays the QBD itself has relatively little criminal work (though QBD judges try the most serious cases in the Crown Court) but does try many cases of tort - such as bodily injury caused by negilgence and defamation - which were, historically, regarded as akin to crime, as well as claims against the government and other public bodies such as the police and local councils. Although in theory the Court of King's Bench was not concerned with purely contractual claims between individual citizens ("common pleas"), in practice from early times procedural means were found to bring such cases into the QBD and in the 20th century this work had expanded such that there were specialist business lists, called courts, administratively distinct from the "ordinary" QBD such as the Commercial Court, the Technology and Construction Court, and the Admiralty Court.

The Chancery Division of the High Court has its origin in the Court of Chancery. The Court of Chancery from the beginning was a court for "common pleas". Although it was not the only court to receive common pleas, it had procedures which other courts did not, such as the ability to order injunctions and pre-trial disclosure of documents, which made it popular particularly for property and business disputes. The Chancery Division also has exclusive jurisdiction in internal company disputes via a specialist list called the Companies Court.

The Business and Property Courts

It can be seen from the above that for historical reasons business disputes are heard not only in the Chancery Division but also in some of the specialist lists of the Queen's Bench Division. In recent times, without changing the formal constitutional structure of the divisions of the High Court, the Chancery Division and the business-related lists of the QBD have worked together, sharing computer systems and premises, and since 2017 they have been known collectively as the Business and Property Courts. 

The County Court, which tries lower value claims, does not, unlike the High Court, have statutory divisions, but nevertheless treats Business and Property work as a specialist list (separate from, for example, personal injury claims which form a large part of the work of the County Court) so that business and property cases can be assigned to those circuit judges who have most experience in such cases.


Many cases are heard in tribunals rather than in courts. The original idea of tribunals was that they would be informal and simple so that litigants would not need to be represented. Whilst the pre-trial steps in tribunals are slightly simpler than in the courts, the procedure at trial and the legal issues being dealt with are, in the main, not at all simple and the original idea of tribunals as being simpler than the courts has not been fulfilled. 

Each tribunal (or each chamber in the case of the First-tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal which are divided into chambers) is concerned with a particular specialist area of law. For example the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal deals with applications to vary or discharge restrictive covenants and the Property Chamber (Land Registration) of the First-tier Tribunal deals with disputes referred by the Land Registry. The legislation creating each tribunal generally seeks to create an overlap between the jurisdiction of the tribunal and the jurisdiction of the court so as to increase the likelihood that any given matter can be dealt with in one set of proceedings, but there are still some cases where both court and tribunal proceedings are necessary.

Further information

Legislation and Decided Cases




Procedural Rules

Civil Procedure Rules (for civil courts below the Supreme Court)

This page was lasted updated in July 2018.         Disclaimer