Major Differences Between the US and UK Legal Systems

Attorneys probably already know legal systems in both the U.K. and the U.S. share the same historical common law roots, and are for that reason quite similar. The purpose of this post, though, is to highlight a few of the key divergences in order to give attorneys a sense of how the U.S. and U.K. legal systems differ.

A note on states

Much like the main subdivisions of the U.K. (i.e. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), the states of the U.S. have their own laws, court systems, and bar associations. In the U.S., federal law and court decisions generally take precedence over these state laws and decisions. Powers not granted to the federal government are instead specifically reserved to the states in the U.S. Constitution.

Court systems

Court systems in both countries are quite similar. Minor criminal offenses and small civil disputes are handled by special magistrate courts tasked with resolving such disputes. In the U.S., these are cases for state courts almost exclusively.

More serious crimes and civil cases in both countries are then subject to a three-court hierarchy. In the U.S., at the federal level, criminal cases and civil cases are not heard by separate courts (at the state level, however, many states do have separate court systems for these two types of cases). Cases begin in lower courts (Crown Court in the U.K., District Court in the U.S.), then move on to Courts of Appeals, and are finally resolved in a single Supreme Court, if necessary.

It is important to note that the U.S. does not have a “Tribunal System” as the U.K. does for certain disputes. There are, however, niche courts for certain types of cases (e.g. bankruptcy court is a separate type of federal court). In the U.S., parties may also agree to submit to binding arbitration or mediation as a means of alternative dispute resolution in certain cases. This often provides a less costly, more streamlined, and less adversarial way to conclude conflicts.

Sources of legal authority

Much like courts in the U.K., courts in the U.S. rely mainly on past judicial opinions as authoritative precedent when resolving litigation. In the U.S., these are often referred to as “opinions” or simply “cases,” while the phrase “law report” has become somewhat archaic.

As readers will also likely know, for legislation, the U.S. has two centralized federal bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate (together, known as the Congress), which are similar to the Houses of Parliament. Each of the 50 states in the U.S. is afforded two senators, while representatives are allocated proportionally based on each state’s population.

In order to become a law in the U.S., a bill under discussion must be approved by a majority of both congressional bodies, and then signed into law by the President. If the President refuses to sign the bill into law, his or her veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote in Congress.

Roles of lawyers

Aside from differences in nomenclature, the roles of lawyers in both countries are quite similar. The terms “barrister” and “solicitor” are not commonly used in the U.S., and litigators and non-litigators are not separately licensed. Instead, once an attorney is admitted to the bar in a particular state, he or she may generally practice any kind of law. For the sake of clarity: court-going barristers are known as “litigators” in the U.S., and solicitors are called “corporate” or “transactional” attorneys, or are referred to in accordance with their area of specialization (e.g., a health care attorney, a real estate attorney, a family law practitioner, etc.).

Legal education

Unlike in the U.K., there is not a requirement to pursue further courses and apprenticeships beyond law school in the U.S. Instead, all prospective lawyers take a three-year course at an accredited law school and receive a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree upon graduation. Then, students must pass the bar exam in a state of their choosing. After licensure, they may generally practice law in any field of their choosing.

As you can see, the systems are more alike than they are different. Hopefully, this post can serve as a basic guide so that attorneys can get a sense of how the two systems compare.

If you are interested in learning more about U.S. law and how it differs from other countries’ legal systems, consider an LL.M. in U.S. Law.

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