Is the political system of the UK complicated? Why?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a constitutional monarchy.

This means that it has a king or a queen as its Head of State. The present British monarch is Queen Elizabeth II. The monarch has very few functions and can only reign with the support of Parliament, which consists of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The supreme legislative power is vested in the Parliament, which sits for 5 years unless sooner dissolved. House of Commons is the real governing body of the UK, it introduces new bills. Then they go to the House of Lords for approval, and finally the monarch signs them. Only then they can become laws.

The House of Commons has 650 popularly elected members, known as Members of Parliament (or MPs), each of whom represents an area of the UK.

The executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and his cabinet. The government is usually formed by the political party which is supported by the majority in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the party that has a majority in the House of Commons. Each new Prime Minister can make changes in the size of his cabinet, appoint new ministers and make other changes.

The Prime Minister takes policy decisions with the agreement of his ministers. He holds Cabinet Meetings at his official residence at No 10 Downing Street which is very near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

The Power of the Cabinet is controlled by Parliament. Each minister is responsible for a particular area of government. For example, the Minister of Defence is responsible for defence policy and the armed forces, the Home Secretary for law and order and immigration.

The House of Lords consists of more than 1,000 hereditary lords and peers. It has very little power.

The two main political parties in Great Britain are the Conservative party and the Labour party.

The judiciary branch of the government determines common law and is independent both the legislative and the executive branches.

There is no written constitution in Great Britain, only precedents and traditions.

Comprehension check

What kind of monarchy is the UK?

How many chambers are there in the British Parliament?

How many members does the House of Lords have?

Why is the Prime-Minister so powerful?

Where does the Cabinet meet?

How does the Cabinet work?

What system is the British political scene dominated by?

What British political parties do you know?


Warming-up questions

How are courts in the UK classified?

How can courts be created in the UK?


The most common type of law court in England and Wales is the magistrates’ court. There are 700 magistrates’ courts and about 30,000 magistrates.

More serious criminal cases then go to the Crown Court, which has 90 branches in different towns and cities. Civil cases (for example, divorce or bankruptcy cases) are dealt with in County courts.

Appeals are heard by higher courts. For example, appeals from magistrates’ courts are heard in the Crown Court. The highest court of appeal in England and Wales is the House of Lords. (Scotland has its own High Court in Edinburgh, which hears all appeals from Scottish courts.) Certain cases may be referred to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The legal system also includes juvenile courts (which deal with offenders under seventeen) and coroners’ courts (which investigate violent, sudden or unnatural deaths). There are administrative tribunals which make quick, cheap and fair decisions with much less formality. Tribunals deal with disputes between individuals, and disputes between individuals and government departments (for example, over taxation).


Nowadays courts can be created only by act of Parliament. Courts can be classified in a number of ways, for example, superior and inferior courts. The most usual difference is, however, between criminal and civil courts.

In criminal cases the courts are the first to hear cases are the magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court (for most serious cases). The Court of appeal in London has a Criminal Division and a Civil Division. It hears appeals in criminal cases from the Crown Court, and in civil cases, from county courts and the High Court. The highest court of Appeal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is the House of Lords (Scotland has its own High Court).

Magistrates’ Courts

A magistrates’ court usually consists of a ‘bench’ of three lay, unpaid magistrates known as justices of the peace ‘JP’s. There are nearly 28,000 lay magistrates serving some 450 courts.

Usually those charged with criminal offences first appear in a magistrates’ court. The less serious offences are tried by the magistrates themselves. The most serious offences, such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery, are tried on indictement (or formal accusation) only by the Crown Court. Usually those charged with such offences first appear before a magistrates’ court, which decides whether to commit them to the Crown Court for trial.

Youth Courts

Cases involving people under 18 are heard in youth courts (formerly juvenile courts). These are special magistrates’ courts. There are restrictions on public access and media coverage.

The Crown Court

The Crown Court sits at about 90 centres and it presided over by High Court judges, full-time ‘circuit judges’ and part-time recorders. England and Wales are divided into six circuits for the purpose of hearing criminal cases.

The Crown Court tries the most serious offences. All contested cases are presided over by a judge sitting with a jury.

The High Courtdeals with the more complicated civil cases (it also cover some serious cases) as well as dealing with appeals from tribunals and from magistrates’ courts in both civil and criminal matters. It has several divisions, such as the family division dealing with the family problems or the Chancery Division dealing with wills, administration of property, etc.

Comprehension check

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