IEL 3: The United Kingdom/Vereinigtes Königreich

Introduction to English law for translators and/or non-lawyers

Following the list of geographical and political terms around the islands, I now turn to the legal systems in the United Kingdom.

The first point is that there are three legal systems in the UK: in England and Wales; in Scotland; and in Northern Ireland.

We don’t usually talk about UK law or British law.

To compare:

Germany is a unitary state with federal law. There is some law that varies from Land to Land, but most law is federal. It’s German law.

The USA has fifty states and a federal district – these are separate jurisdictions. Thus you get the law of New York, the law of California, the law of Texas and so on. It also has federal law, not a huge amount but some: U.S. law.

But the UK has no federal law, although it has a central parliament in Westminster, and a central government and monarch (there has been some devolution in recent years to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland has an Assembly too and has intermittently had some self-government since it came into existence).

This is put succinctly by the New Oxford Companion to Law:

The United Kingdom is an unusual state in that it is comprised of three separate legal systems … This reflects the history of relationships amongst these entities. When the United Kingdom came into being in 1801, it was not a traditional unitary state. While a head of state, government, and Parliament were all shared, when the new United Kingdom Parliament legislated for this new state it was not making United Kingdom or British law, but rather making common provisions which would apply in all of the three legal systems. This continues under the devolution arrangements which have been in place since 1999. There is no separate system of federal law in respect of those powers which have not been devolved from the Westminster Parliament to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Terms: Jurisdiction: One could say: there are three legal systems, or three jurisdictions. One meaning of jurisdiction is an area with its own legal system. Thus the term ‘English law’ is short for ‘English and Welsh law’ and refers to the legal system in the jurisdiction of England and Wales. This term has no simple equivalent in German. Jurisdiction can also mean the area of a court’s jurisdiction (Gerichtsbezirk, Zuständigkeit).

The best translation into German of ‘in various/several/other jurisdictions’ is often ‘in … Ländern’.

One sometimes encounters the German term Jurisdiktion translated as Rechtsprechung or die rechtsprechende Gewalt. Here we are getting into deeper waters. Problems my students had here may have resulted from the fact that they weren’t really familiar with the terms in German, so the English equivalent didn’t register either. Die rechtsprechende Gewalt, one of the three branches of power, is the judiciary (Richterschaft).

The three branches of power: the executive, the legislature, the judiciary (Exekutive, Legislative, Judikative).

But Rechtsprechung is more commonly used to mean case law.

Of course, the literal translation from the Latin of Jurisdiktion is Rechtsprechung, but that doesn’t help.

English law: (now) the law of England and Wales

There are separate legal systems in the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, but these are not part of the UK.

English law today means the legal system of England and Wales, with its system of courts and lawyers. Historically, England was the country where the common law first developed. It spread from England to Wales and to the whole of the island of Ireland, but it did not spread to Scotland. Scots law is a hybrid system, a mixture of civil law (kontinentaleuropäisch) and common law. Thus the legal system in the independent country Ireland is closer to that of England than the legal system in Scotland, a part of the UK.

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