But these courts deal with only a tiny proportion of cases. All cases start - and almost all are completed - in the local courts.
In the UK the local courts are the Magistrates Courts and the County Courts. (most places have a Crown Court relatively close to them - but they are less local - and deal with the more serious cases. The High Court has branches in London (Royal Courts of Justice) and around the country (District Registeries - Bedford; Birkenhead; Birmingham; Bradford; Bristol; Canterbury; Chester; Colchester; Croydon; Dewsbury; Halifax; Leeds; Leicester; Lincoln; Liverpool; Manchester; Newcastle upon Tyne; Norwich; Nottingham; Scarborough; Sheffield; Southampton; Teesside (In Middlesbrough); Warrington
To find details about a particular court, or courts in an area - follow this link.
Magistrates Courts have both criminal and civil jurisdiction - but it is their criminal responsibilities which are most noted. All cases start there - and 95% of cases are dealt with there (excluding appeals and referral to the Crown Court for sentencing). Some offences - "summary offences" - The least serious, which includes Driving without insurance; and Common Assault - can only be dealt with in the Magistrates Court. There are an important set of offences - such as Theft and Assault causing actual bodily harm - which are "triable either way". They can be dealt with by the Magistrates or passed on to the Crown Court where a jury sits. The Magistrates decide - but take into account the wishes of the Prosecution - and of the Defendant (There's a useful wiki from Sheffield University about the "right" to a jury trial in England - available here)
The most serious cases involve "indictable offences" - such as Murder; Manslaughter and Rape - and must be heard in the Crown Court - but preliminary hearings are held in the Magistrates Court. The old "committal proceedings" have gone - but an "Early Administrative Hearing" is held dealing with issues of legal aid and bail. The case is then sent to the Crown Court.
On the civil side the main local court is the "County Court" - despite the name they have nothing to do with the counties in England. There are 216 of them. Where a claim is for £15,000 or less, the case must be started in the County Court (£50,000 for personal injury cases).
I did a post a couple of days ago on Rhod Gilbert. There is another Welsh comedian I enjoyed listening to as a child - Ryan Davies. Sadly he passed away at the age of 40 in April 1977. He and his partner, Ronnie Williams, appeared in a Welsh language comedy on BBC - but for a couple of years, an English series was broadcast. I wish I had been able to find an episode on Youtube, but sadly I couldn't.
A short biography is available here. Having written this post, I am now going to watch the 1971 film of Under Milk Wood, in which Ryan appeared.
There are many things to be proud of as a Brit - my top three would be The BBC, the NHS and the Magna Carta. Sadly the Magna Carta is more honoured in the USA than in Britain (even the monument in Runnymede was erected by the American Bar Association); the NHS is being shaken up to its - and our detriment; and the BBC is under attack.
The BBC is by far the best broadcaster in the UK. Many of its series and programmes are exported - and its news services are respected around the world.
The BBC is the largest broadcasting organisation in the world. Its mission is to enrich people's lives with programmes that inform, educate and entertain.
It is a public service broadcaster, established by a Royal Charter and funded by the licence fee that is paid by UK households.
There is a website giving more details of the BBC and how it is funded and run here.
I have become a big fan of Rhod Gilbert. Although he is from the same area in Wales that my family came from - it is in the United States that I learned to appreciate his humour. Thanks to excerpts on YouTube I was able to discover - and share with American friends some of his stories.
During my recent visit I discovered that the BBC do a podcast called "Rhod Gilbert's Best Bits", which is a selection, usually lasting about 30 minutes, of the banter on his BBC Wales radio programme each Saturday morning. I really looked forward to the new podcast each weekend while I was in Washington. The whole programme (with music) is available on BBC iPlayer here.
Article V of the Constitution deals with the procedure for amending the Constitution.
The key points are - Congress may propose amendments - if two thirds of each House agree; or two thirds of the state legislatures call a Convention for the purpose of amendment. (This last procedure has never been used)
Any such amendments proposed must be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the States (38 states at present)
Twenty Seven Amendments have been passed. The first ten are referred to collectively as "the Bill of Rights". The 18th Amendment introducing prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment. An article on "failed amendments" can be accessed here.
Leading on from Tuesday's post - the same principles apply to regulation. It is a frequent complaint of business that regulation is strangling them. It is a popular election pledge - and government action - to have a "bonfire of regulations" [any review of political history in the last 70 years will show how often this idea is resurrected!]
Regulations do impose costs - the original purpose may be quickly forgotten and rules added ['gold plating'] - turning a regulation into a mighty bureaucratic obstacle. But it is worth reflecting upon why regulations were imposed.
There are people who cheat and lie; who put lives at risk in order to increase their own profit. "Power tends to corrupt" is not a rule that is confined to Government or the public sector. Once again the study of history comes in useful - there is a cycle of
Scandal - demands for 'something to be done' - imposition of regulation -
growing feeling that regulations are costing too much and are stifling innovation, leading to calls for deregulation -
deregulation until next scandal (repeat for ever!!!)
The history of banking and finance amply illustrates this recurring cycle.
There will be a referendum held in Wales a week tomorrow (3rd March 2011). In recent years there has been increasing use of referenda on "Constitutional issues" within the UK. The setting up of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly was preceded by a referendum in each country. There have also been referenda in parts of England on proposals for enhanced regional government. (London voted Yes , all the others voted No ). Referenda have been more frequently used in Northern Ireland.
Wales has itself had two referenda on devolution - both asked whether the Welsh people wanted a National Assembly to be set up - in 1979 (NO); and in 1997 (YES). The current referendum is about whether the Assembly should be able to to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas which it currently has some powers. For more information on the Welsh referendum visit the (politically neutral) website of the Electoral Commission - accessible here.
There will be a national UK referendum on 5th May 2011, on adopting the Alternative Vote, in place of the current voting system (which is often described as the "first past the post system"). It is only the second referendum held across the UK. The first was in 1975, over continued membership of the then EEC (now European Union). The question was - '"Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?".
67.2 percent voted Yes and 32.8 percent voted No.
Other "Constitutional changes" have been adopted without a referendum - such as transfer of further powers to the European Union and (Royal Assent to the Act was given on February 16th), the reduction in the size of the House of Commons (from 650 to 600).
Although his birthplace no longer stands - there are some lovely old buildings remaining in Ipswich. It is certainly a town worth visiting - a lovely marina has been built, where once ugly dockyards and warehouses once stood. There are quite a few coffee shops (I spent Monday morning drinking (far too much) coffee and tea in the Starbucks in Tavern Street while I worked on my research in Congress in the mid 1970s). The plaque was on the side of the beautiful buildings shown in the photograph below
Why have Constitutions, Laws and Regulations? I know that it's a theme I keep coming back to - but it is worth repeating -
"Power tends to corrupt, Absolute Power corrupts absolutely"
Experience tells us that without effective constraints - power WILL be abused - whether it is the petty official or the great dictator. That suggests that two principles need to be adhered to -
1 the costs of breaking constitutional (and other) rules need to be greater than the advantage that can be gained through disregard of them. That cost may be in the form of legal sanctions. A President of the United States "shall be removed from office" when he has been impeached and convicted of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors"; a breach of electoral law can lead to the election being declared void - which is the reason why there was a recent by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth (for more information press here). In Britain we may rely more on "conventions" rather than legal rules - but they still work on the principle that the cost of breaking the convention is greater than the short term advantage.
2 there should be limits on the discretion of officials. Dicey was opposed to granting wide discretionary powers because he believed that it would lead to arbitrary decisions. In the modern state, that may be unworkable. The English Courts have responded to modern needs by developing the remedy of "Judicial Review" which allows the Courts to oversee the use of discretion by public bodies and others exercising public (as opposed to private) functions.
The Fourth Article contains directions for the States which together constitute the United States of America. This is not the most exciting Article - but is crucial for setting up the legal framework to enable the USA to work.
It is worth reading through this Article, and reflecting upon why each measure is considered necessary -
Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.
Clause 1:The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.
Clause 2:A Person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on Demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime.
Clause 3:No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. [note - this is affected by Amendment XIII] Section. 3.
Clause 1: New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
Clause 2:The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.
The picture is of Virginia's State Capitol in Richmond.
This week, with my new students at Aylesbury College, we looked at the balance of police powers (and the rights as members of society not to have criminals interfere with our lives) and the rights of an individual suspect. I highlighted the number of misscarriages of justice which undermined the legal process in the scefic cases - but also undermined the integrity of the English legal system. Many of the safeguards now in place are a response to the weaknesses shown up in these cases.
So we looked at the Guildford Four; The Maguire Seven; The Birmingham Six; Stefan Kiszko; Judith Ward; the Bridgewater Three....
While prepping for my session, I bought - and have been reading Michael Mansfield's "Memoirs of A Radical Lawyer" - he describes many of the cases he has been involved in - and explains how easily justice can be undermined. I would recommend the book to anyone studying Law - it's an interesting book to read, he is certainly an interesting individual - but it should also provoke thought - about the role of lawyers; of how "justice" can be delivered; and of the very real dangers of relying on "expert" evidence.
The series on the US Constitution will resume on Monday 21st February.
Two hundred and three years ago today, Aaron Burr, who had been Thomas Jefferson's Vice President (in 1801-1805) - was arrested for treason. He was accused of preparing a private army to invade Florida, New Orleans or Mexico; or to lead a secession of the western states from the Union; or all of those things. He was aquitted.
Burr is certainly one of the more interesting, though often forgotten, characters in US History. His career swung between great heights, and deep lows. He served as a US Senator before becoming Vice President (and thereby President of the Senate). He lost his seat in the Senate after his first term - and tied with Jefferson in the ballot for the presidency after a remarkable comeback. He fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton, another of the great founders of the US - and killed him. He was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey - but escaped trial, eventually returning to complete his term as Vice President. After his aquittal for Treason he sailed to England hoping to gain support for a revolution in Mexico. He was ordered out of the country and traveled in Europe to Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Paris. There he tried to garner support from Napoleon. He returned penniless to the USA.
Treason as a term, covers the most serious acts of betrayal of one's country or sovereign.
"Under the law of the United Kingdom, high treason is the crime of disloyalty to the Crown. Offences constituting high treason include plotting the murder of the sovereign; having sexual intercourse with the sovereign's consort, with his eldest unmarried daughter, or with the wife of the heir to the throne; levying war against the sovereign and adhering to the sovereign's enemies, giving them aid or comfort; and attempting to undermine the lawfully established line of succession."
An annotated version of theThird Article can be accessed here. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has its own website, with lots of information about its' history, makeup, procedure and cases.
A number of my students are this week studying thr principles behind Constitutional law. I'd like to welcome them to this short series on the US Constitution. But this blog is open to all - so even if you aren't a law student - I hope you find these brief pieces useful.
The US Constitution is an ideal document for studying the principles of constitutions. It is succinct - and logically deals with the key matters that a constitution should address - namely: who is to hold power - how are they chosen? who qualifies to be chosen? how long is their term of office? how can they be removed? what powers do they have? - and for what purposes? what limitations exist on the exercise of those powers? What are the 'checks and balances'? How can the rules be amended?
While this series concentrates on the US Constitution - I would encourage you to look at other constitutions - as a comparison - of structure, and of content? What do you think is essential? A database of constitutions can be accessed here. (Note - most have translations available - but you may need to look around the page of the national constitution to find the translated version link)
A love of history is very useful for studying law and politics. For one thing human nature doesn't change. Lord Acton's dictum that "power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely" was true in Ancient Greece and Rome; in Medieval England - and is true today (which is why law is needed to curb these tendencies).
History is particularly useful for understanding Common Law systems - such as those in the UK and USA. It can explainthe background to current practice - and makes certain odd behaviour - in Parliament and Congress - understandable.
Websites relating to the institutions of Government have history links - follow the links below -
It will be a busy and eventful week at Westminster - then a break. Again, contrary to standard practice, the Government will seek to continue steamrolling the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Third Reading is on Monday in the Lords - and then ping pong begins on Tuesday.
The Old Town of Alexandria can often by overlooked by visitors to Washington DC. Don't. It's a lovely town - full of some great restaurants - with lots of history, and a welcoming atmosphere. I wish I were back there! (though I'm looking forward to meeting my new OU students later today). These videos (with no commentary) show the waterfront by the Torpedo Factory. If you are visiting the Capital area - don't miss a day and an evening in "Old Town". (Also make time to visit St Elmo's!)
Reading a book is only one means of learning - it can be combined with others to make study more effective. If your studies involve Constitutional law, law generally, British or American politics- there are many resources available -for free - on the internet.
There are iPhone apps - such as the Parliament Quiz: a fun way of learning about the key facts - and an website providing a quiz and facts about the US Constitution available here.
Radio and TV are great sources for programmes about the working of the Law; the Legislature and politics generally. In the UK there is a radio programme called "Law in Action" and details of other legal radio programmes can be found here.
Washminster is designed to bring you materials useful for the study of UK & US Constitutional Law; law generally; practice and procedure in Parliament and Congress - as well as items of history; tourism - and anything that might be of interest. I hope you'll be checking in frequently to this blog - and do share your comments - the best form of study is to share ideas and discuss with fellow students!
One of the most moving of my visits in the Washington area was to the memorial for those died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on 9/11. It is a very simple - but very moving memorial. It can be accessed by foot from the Pentagon Fashion Centre (walk westwards from the Macy's northern entrance - cross the road on the pedestrian crossing - and follow the signs to the Pentagon Memorial via a tunnel under the roads). Alternatively you can walk from the Pentagon metro station. Further details are available here.
Leaning about a legal system and its practices can be done from a textbook - but visiting a real court makes the words of the book come alive. It is a principle of Common Law systems - such as the English and US systems - that, except in special circumstances (where young people are involved; or the matter is purely domestic, or national security may be endangered), the courts are open to the public.
So if you are learning about Magistrates Courts or County Courts - why not visit the one in your local town? Crown Courts can be found in most large towns - and the High Court sits in various places around England. The Court of Appeal (as well as the High Court) sits in the Royal Courtsof Justice in the Strand, London. The Supreme Court meets in a building on the western side of Parliament Square.
If you are a student, let the court officials know - talking to them, and the lawyers can give a real insight to how the courts work - and will make any textbook, however dry, come alive.
Details of Courts in England and Wales can be found here.
I've been reading an interesting, though disturbing book, by Erwin Chemerinsky, called "The Conservative Assault on the Constitution". His thesis is that in the USA, Conservative judges have undermined constitutional freedoms (to privacy; to 'habeas corpus'; to protection against abuses by the Government and the (in this case inappropriately named) forces of law and order) - weakened rights arising from the 1st & 8th amendments - given a wholly new meaning to the 2nd Amendment - all for ideological reasons. It's a challenging book - and all American Law students ought to consider and debate its assertions.
For British law students - it highlights the fact that merely having a "Constitution" doesn't protect anything (the Soviet Constitutions are good examples of that). Rights must be enforceable in the courts (which requires access to justice) and enforced by the Judges. This book highlights the myth that judges are merely neutral umpires - their approach will be determined by their own ideology.
Chemerinsky makes some points worth reflecting upon. He says
"Most constitutional issues never occured to the framers. And even when there was discussion of such a question in 1787, there often was a sharp difference of opinion. [he gives the example of disputes between Madison and Hamilton - two of the key authors and defenders of the Constitution]"
"A second problem with trying to follow the original intent of the framers is that the world of 1787, or of 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment [Equal Protection - amongst other things] was adopted, is so vastly different from our own that it often would be unthinkable to be bound by the original understandings of the earlier time."
Much material for thought, discussion...and essays on the advantages/disadvantages of a written constitution here!
Many of the histories and guides to Capitol Hill say that it is built upon land once known as "Jenkins Hill". L'Enfant certainly described it as such - and many followed him. However the stories of the site of the Capitol being where Thomas Jenkins pastured his animals are.sadly, pure myth. I will give more of the real story in a forthcoming post.
The land on which the Capitol stands was in fact owned by Daniel Carroll of Duddington (who was a relative of Commissioner Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek). The land was marked on maps as "New Troy". Many local places were given Roman and Greek names. The small stream which ran at the base of the hill - and into what is now the Mall - had the grand title of the Tiber.
Another myth concerns the founding of London in the UK. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that London was founded when Brutus (A Trojan - who Geoffrey credits as being the ancestor of the English Kings) fled from Troy in about 1070 BC to the British Isles. He was the founder of the settlement which later become London - he called it "New Troy". The BBC tell the story here.
In one of the videos from my walk whilst in the USA, I show the point at which the surveying to establish the District of Columbia began (to see the video of Jones Point press here)
The timeline for the establishment of the City and the Capitol Building is -
July 16th 1790 - Congress, meeting in New York, passes the Residence Act - which moves the seat of government to Philadelphia for 10 years, and then to a new site (a square of 10 miles on each side) on the Potomac - the exact area to be established by the President.
Washington selected an area which included the existing settlements of Georgetown and Alexandria - but the new city was on the Maryland side to the south and east of Georgetown. L'Enfant prepared a map showing the outline of the new city and its major streets and buildings in 1791.
1791 First public sale of lots within the Federal District
1792 Competitions were announced for the design of an Executive Mansion (now the White House) and a building for the Congress. The Executive Mansion was sorted out with ease, but none of the plans for the Congress Hall satisfied the Commissioners. William Thornton requested and was given permission to submit a late entry. This design was chosen. However his only professional competitor - Stephen Hallet - was, in compensation for the work he had done on his own entry, given a key role in building - and he abused his position to alter and undermine Thornton's plan. He was eventually discharged.
Sept 18th 1793 - the Cornerstone of the Capitol was laid
late May 1800 - The government left Philadelphia - to set up in Washington
Nov 17th 1800 - The North (Senate) Wing of the Capitol was ready - but the House Building was barely more than foundations. So both Houses met in the Senate Building. A temporary House of representatives building was available by December 1801.
1811 - the House Building was completed - but the middle building remained unbuilt - so the two Houses were joined by a temporary passageway.
Aug 24th 1814 - the British burned the Capitol Building!
I've been spending a lot of time in bookshops around Washington DC - and have brought back a few to keep me busy over the coming months. A few days ago I can across one which I hadn't seen before. It is Tom Daschle's "Getting it Done: How Obama and Congress Finally Broke the Stalemate to Make Way for Health Care Reform". Now there are more than enough books on the healthcare debate - and as a UK citizen the ins and outs of what is and isn't covered - has limited attraction. [I benefit from the British NHS, a system which is available to UK citizens on the basis of need - and has well served my family since it was set up over 60 years ago - and none of us have had worry about whether a job loss would mean loss of cover - and we've never had to deal with an insurance company telling us that we've reached the limit of our coverage. ]
But Tom Daschle's book attracted me - because it describes the process by which the legislation made its way through Congress. I will be reading the book in full in the future - but had the opportunity to skim read it whilst taking coffee at the Borders store in the Pentagon Center last week. There's lots there for someone who is interested in how Congress works in practice - and for the historian who seeks to follow the way Congress have evolved since the early 1970s (that would be me!)
What does a bill look like? (no, not the ones you have to pay - we all know those well enough!). The term is used on both sides of the Atlantic for legislation under consideration by the Legislature (Parliament or Congress). One passed they become "Acts"
To see an example of a British Bill press here. (Parliamentary Voting System & Constituencies Bill)
To see an example of an American Bill press here. (Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act)
You'll note that the British title is neutral, whereas the practice in the US has been to make a statement with the job title.
Roy Blunt was Majority Whip in the House of Representatives the last time the Republicans had control of the House. Last year he was elected to the Senate. During an interview at the conference I attended last week, he spoke of the differences he found in the Senate.
To read the Washminster post describing each of the three main House Office buildings follow this link. It was written during my September 2007 visit and gives more detail about the buildings and the Speakers they are named after. The Architect of the Capitol's website is accessible here.
Long term readers of this blog will know of the long term affection I have for a very special coffee shop in the Del Ray area of Alexandria. It's just a few miles from Washington DC - and I've already made a couple of visits on this trip to the USA. It has a lovely atmosphere - and I really enjoy their coffee and food. The founder and owner, Nora Partlow, spoke to me last Friday
After our chat I did a bit of work on my research, whilst enjoying another coffee. It is a superb place to quietly work in pleasant surroundings. The website of St Elmo's can be accessed here. If you use Facebook you can sign up for updates on what is going on - and what new foods and coffees are available.
I am a tutor for the Open University and have practical experience of working in the UK and European Parliaments.
Until May 2010 I worked at Westminster as Political Secretary to Lord Bach and to Lord Hunt of King's Heath. Previously I had worked as Research and Policy Director in the Office of Sir Peter Soulsby MP. In 2001 and 2005 I stood for Parliament in the South Leicestershire Constituency of Blaby. In 2009 I was a candidate for the European Parliament in the East Midlands Region.
I have a keen academic and practical interest in the workings of both the UK Parliament and the US Congress. I have made a number of study visits to Washington DC - and monitor proceedings, procedure and practice in the four chambers [House of Commons, House of Lords, House of Representative and the Senate]
Over the years I have broadcast on both UK & US Politics for BBC local radio including Radio Northampton; BBC Three Counties and BBC Radio Oxford.