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The higher courts

Three main higher or central courts had emerged as distinct institutions during the Middle Ages and until the 1880s they conducted their business close to Parliament in Westminster Hall.

By the 18th century the court of King's Bench was the most important and administered most forms of civil and criminal law business.

Chief Justice

The court of Common Pleas dealt mainly with private actions of a non-criminal nature, and the court of Exchequer heard cases relating to taxation and revenue.

Each court was presided over by a Chief Justice assisted by three other judges.


Members of local communities came into direct contact with the higher courts at Westminster only if they were litigants in civil cases. The usual procedure was for business requiring the verdict of a court of law to be initiated at one of the courts at Westminster.

It was then committed for trial by one of the Westminster judges on circuit at a local assize court.

Judges at the assizes

Through their twice-yearly assize visits to counties and towns the judges represented an important link between the localities and the senior courts at Westminster. In practical terms, too, the senior courts supervised justice in the lower courts and maintained discipline over the locally based Justices of the Peace.

Appeals against verdicts - but only in civil cases - were usually made from the assize court to the Westminster court where the action had started. Cases that were still unresolved went to a tribunal of judges known as the Exchequer Chamber.

Appeals to House of Lords

Further appeal was possible to the House of Lords, which had established its right to hear appeals in the 17th century.

Did you know?

The higher courts were moved from their former location in Westminster Hall to the purpose-built Royal Courts of Justice buildings on The Strand in London in 1882.

External links

King's Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer and assize records are kept at the National Archives