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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The equivalent body of law is based on statute, common law, and "traditional rights." Changes may come about formally through new acts of parliament, informally through the acceptance of new practices and usage, or by judicial precedents. Although parliament has the theoretical power to make or repeal any law, in actual practice the weight of 700 years of tradition restrains arbitrary actions.

Executive government rests nominally with the monarch but actually is exercised by a committee of ministers (cabinet) traditionally selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in the Commons, and the government is dependent on its support.

Parliament represents the entire country and can legislate for the whole or for any constituent part or combination of parts. The maximum parliamentary term is 5 years, but the prime minister may ask the monarch to dissolve parliament and call a general election at any time. The focus of legislative power is the 650-member House of Commons, which has sole jurisdiction over finance. The House of Lords, although shorn of most of its powers, can still review, amend, or delay temporarily any bills except those relating to the budget. Only a few of the 1,200 members of the House of Lords attend its sessions regularly. The House of Lords has more time than the House of Commons to pursue one of its more important functions--debating public issues.

The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches but cannot review the constitutionality of legislation.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Law Schools

Most UK universities offer law courses. In the United Kingdom, law is a three-year undergraduate degree - entry is decided by reference to "A-Level" points. "A-Levels" are examinations students take in the two years prior to entering university and each grade is worth a different level of points. The hierarchy of the UK law schools is roughly equal to those who wish or demand students who score the highest. The older universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, London etc.) are still considered to be some of the most prestigious universities in which to "read law", but many newcomers have entered the field and, infused with energetic faculty members and diverse student bodies, are beginning to give the traditional institutions a run for their money.

There is no set format for UK law teaching; each university is allowed to decide how the subject will be taught. Some universities offer a large number of lectures and a small number of tutorials (e.g. "Oxbridge" and Durham), whereas other universities prefer more tutorials where near one-to-one tuition can be offered (e.g. Northumbria University) The only common thread uniting law degrees is that for them to qualify as law degrees for professional purposes, students must study Constitutional law, E.U. law, Contract Law, Law of Torts, Criminal Law, Land Law and Equity and Trusts.

At the end of three years students are awarded a bachelor's degree in law and they must then decide what to do next. A large proportion - possibly around one-third - will decide not to enter a career as a lawyer. The others must choose between becoming a barrister (essentially, a courtroom litigator) or a solicitor. Students who do not have a qualifying law degree (either because they have not studied one of the subjects listed above, or because they have read for another degree) but who nonetheless wish to enter the professions must do a one-year course called the Common Professional Examination and then they too have to choose which profession to enter. A would-be barrister has to take the Bar Vocational Course, which lasts one year. Prior to 1998 this course was taken in London at the Inns of Court School of Law, but nowadays there are several universities which also offer the training. Would-be solicitors study the Legal Practice Course, which is also one-year long and is offered by numerous universities, as well as by the College of Law (the formal "solicitor's university"). After completing their respective professional courses, law students then undergo professional training. A barrister undertakes a year of "pupillage" in barristers' "chambers", which is actually two six-month placements. A solicitor takes a training contract ("articles") which lasts for two years.

Legal education in England and Wales is changing quite rapidly, and in the opinion of some academic and professional observers a number of the older UK universities are not changing fast enough. Many UK law schools now offer skills-based learning like moots and advocacy, and many universities are also offering part-time or distance-learning degrees. The Open University (which was set up by the government in the 1960s primarily to teach adults by distance learning, which then meant correspondence and television) is leading the way in this field in general; in law, the University of London now offers an external LL.B. degree that can be taken by distance learning, and Strathclyde University in Scotland is offering an LL.M. through the internet. Bringing modern teaching methods to bear on legal education will help to ensure that law remains one of the more popular and respected degrees in the United Kingdom.

Alisdair A. Gillespie
JURIST UK Correspondent

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Correspondents' Reports

JURIST's UK Correspondent is Alisdair A. Gillespie, Barrister (Middle Temple), Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director, Centre for Police Research and Education, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough.


Alisdair A. Gillespie
Barrister (Middle Temple), Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director, Centre for Police Research and Education, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough