Differences between US and UK legal systems
8th September 2015
The UK and US legal systems share the same historical roots and are therefore fairly similar to one another, but there are some key differences between the legal systems.
Whether you are a lawyer in the US that is considering moving into in-house legal jobs in the UK, are a solicitor considering moving in the opposite direction or are just interested in the differences between the two countries, we have compiled a list of some of the major differences between the US legal system and English and Welsh legal system that you need to be aware of.
In the US, every legal professional is generally referred to as a lawyer, as litigators and non-litigators are not separately licenced, whereas in the UK there are solicitors and barristers – terminology that is not used across the pond.
Those who work in solicitor jobs in the UK work with clients on a range of legal topics, offering advice and drafting together legal documents. Solicitors can represent their clients in court in minor cases, but generally their role involves working on everything outside of court.
Barristers, on the other hand, are the experts in the courtroom that are involved in cross examining witnesses, defendants and victims in front of a jury. The solicitor takes their client to a barrister to represent them in court.
The court systems in both the UK and the US are very similar to one another. Minor criminal and civil offences are handled by magistrate courts, which are often referred to as state courts in the US.
For more serious crimes or civil cases, the Crown Court in the UK or the District Court in the US will handle these cases before being passed onto the Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court if necessary.
One of the major differences between the court systems in the UK and the US is the fact that the US does not have a Tribunal System like the UK has in place for certain types of disputes. Instead, the US has specific courts for bankruptcy etc.
Juries in the UK are selected at random as British residents who are between the ages of 18 and 70 and on the electoral roll are eligible for jury service. Jury duty must be honoured and only in exceptional circumstances will people be allowed to miss jury service.
In contrast, American juries are pre-selected and are then agreed upon by counsellors for both the defence and prosecution teams.
Legal education also differs from the UK to the US. In the UK, law students are required to pursue further courses and apprenticeships after completing their law degree.
However, students in the US need to take a three-year course at an accredited law school and will then just be asked to pass a bar exam in the state of their choosing before being allowed to practice law in their specialist field.
Cameras in the courts
US courts allow cameras into courtrooms and criminal trials are commonly shown on television channels in the US.
The UK takes a different stance, but this is beginning to change. Previously UK courts refused any video footage or any cameras to be brought into court, but in 2013 cameras were permitted into the court room for the first time in over 90 years. As reported in this article on the Daily Mail, the closing stages of cases at the Court of Appeal are allowed to be filmed.
The Crown Court and other courts in the UK have stopped short of televising proceedings, unlike courts in the US, which are commonly televised on local and national television channels for the public to see.
Courts in England and Wales still do not allow cameras to be brought into a courtroom for serious crimes, but in Scotland a murder trial was allowed to be filmed in 2013 for the first time after permission had been sought from all participants, including the defendant.
Unlike in the UK, where judges and the Queen’s Counsel and senior barristers wear wigs to create a respect for the court and to show everyone that they are representing the whole legal system within England and Wales, US judges and lawyers do not wear wigs. US judges and lawyers do wear unique styles of robes like their British counterparts.
To find out some more smaller differences between the legal systems in the UK and the US, visit the Inside Counsel website.