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12 British Legal Terms Explained

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Does an arched eyebrow beneath a powdered wig set your heart racing? Do the words, "Objection, My Lord!" make you giddy? Although English courtroom dramas keep American fans riveted, some legal terms can be a bit of a muddle, leaving statesiders confused. We hope the testimony herein will set things to rights. (Note: The following explanations apply to England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own court systems.) 

1. SOLICITOR

You know solicitors and barristers are both lawyers, but what's the difference? If you have the idea that solicitors handle the paperwork—wills, contracts, and the like—and barristers do the courtroom work, you're partially right. By far the majority of lawyers are solicitors and, yes, the paperwork bit is correct. They may advocate for clients in the lower courts, and in some instances in higher courts. Nonetheless, in most court cases a client retains a solicitor, who in turn retains a barrister to present the case in court.

All prospective lawyers start on the same educational path: First, a bachelor's degree in law (LL.B.) or, if they read (majored in) another subject at university, a year or two of postgraduate education in law. After that, the paths diverge. Prospective solicitors must take a one-year Legal Practice Course, usually followed by two years' apprenticeship. 

2. BARRISTER

Following graduation, prospective barristers must first apply to join one of the four Inns of Court and then complete the one-year Bar Professional Training Course followed by a year's training in a set of barristers' chambers, known as "pupillage."

The primary function of barristers is to act as advocates, and they may do so in all courts. That said, usually a barrister may only act upon the instructions of a solicitor. Barristers are either Queen's Counsel (also called leaders or leading counsel) or junior barristers.

3. INNS OF COURT

The term “Inns of Court” refers both a set of buildings in central London and to the ancient legal societies based in them. Their origin is cloaked in mystery, but the Inns probably began as hostels for lawyers in the 14th century. Now, every barrister must join one of the four surviving Inns: Gray's Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln's Inn, and Middle Temple. According to the Oxford Dictionary of British History, the Temple was the London residence of the Knights Templar until their dissolution and was left to lawyers in the mid-14th century.

From an early date, the Inns played an important role in legal education. Although barristers no longer reside at the Inns, their attendance at a number of dinners given by their Inns are a social requirement and guest speakers at the dinners offer a form of continuing education. When new members are considered for a pupillage or an invitation into chambers, the dinners provide an opportunity to assess their compatibility.

4. CHAMBERS

Chambers, in addition to referring to the private office of a judge, can also mean the offices occupied by a barrister or group of barristers. The term is also used for the group of barristers practicing from a set of chambers.

5. QUEEN'S COUNSEL (QC)

In the late 16th century, these were barristers who were appointed to assist the law officers of the crown. During the 18th century, they lost their close connection with the crown and the title became merely a mark of honor for distinguished barristers. Now, a Queen’s Counsel is a senior barrister of at least ten years' practice who is appointed by an independent selection panel as “one of Her Majesty's counsel learned in the law.”

According to a former solicitor, “QCs are sort of higher paid consultants brought in by a junior barrister.” In court, they sit within the bar and wear silk gowns. Thus they are said to “take silk” and are familiarly referred to as “silks.” Junior barristers traditionally wear “stuff” (worsted wool) gowns. If the monarch is a king, silks are known as King's Counsel (KC).

6. CROWN PROSECUTION SERVICE (CPS)

The CPS, which is organized on a regional basis, conducts most criminal prosecutions. The Chief Crown Prosecutor of a region is roughly equivalent to a district attorney in the U.S. 

7. CROWN COURT

The Crown Court has jurisdiction over all criminal cases tried on indictment. It also hears appeals from magistrates' courts.

8. CROWN PROSECUTOR 

A Crown prosecutor is a barrister or solicitor employed by the Crown Prosecution Service.

9. MAGISTRATE 

A magistrate is an unpaid volunteer without formal legal qualifications who serves in a magistrates' court. There are also, however, district judges (formerly called "stipendiary magistrates" and known in slang as “stipes”) in London and other major cities.

10. MAGISTRATES' COURT

A magistrates’ court consists of between two and seven magistrates or a single district judge. The magistrates' courts initiate all criminal prosecutions by considering whether there is sufficient evidence to justify committing the defendant to the Crown Court. Another function of the court is as a court of summary jurisdiction: a criminal court of trial without a jury. Magistrates' courts also have a limited jurisdiction in civil matters relating to debt and matrimonial proceedings.

11. CONSTABLE

All police officers hold the office of constable. 

12. OLD BAILEY

The Old Bailey is London's principal criminal court. The courthouse was first built in 1539, just outside the western wall of the city, next to Newgate Prison. The name comes from “bailey,” the external wall enclosing the outer court of a feudal castle. Reconstructed several times, the building now extends to cover the former site of the prison. Although the court's original jurisdiction included only serious crimes committed in the City of London and Middlesex, in 1972 it became part of the Crown Court with its jurisdiction no longer geographically constricted. Since 1981 it has been part of the Supreme Court. Famous trials conducted at the Old Bailey include those of William Penn (1670), Oscar Wilde (1895), and Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper" (1981).

Sources: New Oxford Companion to Law (2009); Gooch & Williams, Dictionary of Law Enforcement (Oxford U. Pr, 2007); Cannon, Dictionary of British History (2013); Oxford English Dictionary Online; Oxford Dictionary of Law (2013). (All sources except the last accessed via the website of Los Angeles Public Library.)

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Did Queen Victoria Really Adopt an Orphaned African Princess?
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In 1850, a young naval captain named Frederick E. Forbes arrived in the African kingdom of Dahomey (today’s Benin) to see the powerful monarch King Ghezo on an antislavery mission from the British Empire. As was standard for meetings of dignitaries, gifts were exchanged. Among those given to Forbes—as a formal offering to Queen Victoria—was a 7-year-old girl.

Two years earlier, the girl’s life had been upended. Her village of Okeadan (in modern-day Nigeria) was raided, her family was killed, and she was captured as a slave. Many sources suggest that the girl was the daughter of a chief or of royal lineage, but Forbes wrote that of "her own history she has only a confused idea"; he speculated that she was "of a good family" because she had been kept alive at court and not sold. With Forbes's arrival in the court of King Ghezo, her fortunes—as dramatized in the PBS series Victoria—unexpectedly changed.

Forbes was part of the Royal Navy's antislavery squadron that patrolled and captured slave ships off West Africa. Though Great Britain had been a prominent force in the transatlantic slave trade, by 1838, under Queen Victoria, parliament had abolished slavery throughout the empire.

It may seem ironic that a man opposed to slavery would accept a human as a gift, which Walter Dean Myers, in his young reader book At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, calls “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” But as Forbes wrote in his journals, to refuse her would be to sign "her death-warrant.” He believed that, "in consideration of the nature of the service I had performed, the government would consider her as the property of the Crown," so the government would take responsibility for her care. And, he was immediately impressed by her brightness and charm, calling her "a perfect genius.” He renamed and baptized the young girl after himself and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. From that moment forward, she was known as Sarah Forbes Bonetta.


Sarah Forbes Bonetta, at about age 7, in a color plate from Frederick E. Forbes's Dahomey and the Dahomans, 1851
Dahomey and the Dahomans // Public Domain

Queen Victoria got word of Sarah's rescue, and on November 9, 1850, Forbes presented Sarah to the Queen at Windsor Castle. Both Forbes and the Queen likely saw a purpose for her in England’s promotion of Christianity in Africa. "God grant she may be taught to consider that her duty leads her to rescue those who have not had the advantages of education from the mysterious ways of their ancestors,” Forbes wrote hopefully.

In her essay in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, Joan Anim-Addo suggests that Queen Victoria’s decision to pay for Sarah's education and guide her upbringing "took into careful consideration Forbes's projection of a future for Sally in missionary circles, particularly in relation to Sierra Leone.” In the 1800s, the Sierra Leone Colony was part of the British Empire, and administered by Anglican missionaries with the purpose of creating a home for freed slaves.

Sarah stayed for a time with Forbes's family and visited the Queen regularly. In her diary, Queen Victoria wrote fondly of Sarah, who she sometimes called Sally. “After luncheon Sally Bonita, the little African girl came with Mrs Phipps, & showed me some of her work. This is the 4th time I have seen the poor child, who is really an intelligent little thing.”

The captain died in 1851, and Sarah, then about 8 years old, was sent to a missionary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May of that year. The school forbade students from wearing African dress and speaking their native languages, and promoted English culture as a path to civilization. Sarah was a model student, but in 1855, she returned to England. According to Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, Sarah was unhappy at the school, and the Queen agreed to her departure.

Map of Africa in 1840
Africa circa 1840
Olney's School Geography, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Her royal sponsor placed her with a new family, the Schoens, longtime missionaries in Africa who now lived at Palm Cottage in Gillingham, Kent, about 35 miles east of London. Sarah seemed to get along well with her new guardians—in her letters she addressed Mrs. Schoen as “Mama.” One of her letters, reprinted in Myers’s At Her Majesty’s Request, was sent from Windsor Castle and hints at the Queen’s care for her well-being: "Was it not kind of the Queen—she sent to know if I had arrived last night as she wishes to see me in the morning.”

The Schoens’ daughter Annie later remembered how Sarah "was very bright and clever, fond of study, and had a great talent for music, and soon became as accomplished as any English girl of her age.” Furthermore, Queen Victoria "gave constant proofs of her kindly interest in her," including invitations to Windsor at holidays, and gifts like an engraved gold bracelet. In an 1856 photograph, taken when she was around 13, Sarah is posed like an English lady, a sewing basket at her elbow, and a bracelet, perhaps the one from the Queen, on her wrist.

Despite living with the English elite, and receiving a lady’s education, Sarah had little control over her destiny. And like most women of the 19th century, she was expected to marry when she reached the proper age. For Sarah, that age was 19. A suitor was found: Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Sierra Leone-born British naval officer. His own parents, of Yoruba descent, had been freed from slave ships by the Royal Navy, and Davies had attended the same missionary school as Sarah. After retiring from the navy, he became a successful merchant vessel captain and businessman. They seemed to have a lot in common, but Sarah did not love him. "I know that the generality of people would say he is rich & your marrying him would at once make you independent," Sarah wrote to Mrs. Schoen, "and I say, 'Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?' No—never!”

Yet she could not disobey the Queen, and in August 1862, in St. Nicolas Church in Brighton, she married Davies. In a series of 1862 carte de visite photographs now at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Sarah poses in her voluminous white wedding dress with her new husband. Her lively eyes stare directly at the viewer in one shot, with a gaze that seems almost defiant.

The couple moved to Sierra Leone, and then to Lagos. With royal permission, they named their daughter, born in 1863, after Queen Victoria, who became her godmother. The Queen presented baby Victoria with a gold cup, salver, knife, fork, and spoon engraved with an affectionate message: "To Victoria Davies, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863.”

Sarah and James had two more children, but Sarah’s health began to wane. She went to Madeira, a Portuguese island, to seek a cure for tuberculosis. Sadly, she died in 1880 at just 37 years old.

Upon hearing that news, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she would give her goddaughter Victoria Matilda Davies an annuity of £40 (which has the economic power of £63,000 today).

Many mysteries remain about Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life. In her letters, she wrote only of current events. She never reflected on her childhood, the loss of her family, or her dramatic rescue. She also never mentioned royal blood, though the popular notion of Sarah as an “African princess” endures.

Queen Victoria’s care for Sarah may have been partly a moral mission, fueled by the desire to spread Christian righteousness in the British colonies. Yet in an era when slavery was still practiced in the United States, her support and care for Sarah and her family was a powerful statement of tolerance.

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England Copied Its Teatime Customs from Queen Catherine of Braganza
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From Kate Middleton’s wedding dress to Princess Di’s hairdo, England’s royal family is known for setting trends. But as Great Big Story’s video below shows us, these social crazes haven’t always been fashion-related. One of them—drinking tea—even evolved into bona fide cultural heritage.

In 1662, Catherine of Braganza, a wealthy noblewoman from Portugal, married England's King Charles II. The union made Catherine Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland—and she brought with her a vast dowry of money, treasures, and spices.

Catherine’s arsenal of exotic riches also included packets of loose-leaf tea. According to legend, the new queen transported the beverage to England in crates labeled Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas (Transport of Aromatic Herbs)—later abbreviated to T.E.A.

The queen so enjoyed drinking tea from china teacups that others began imitating her. Soon, the elaborate ritual of drinking tea in the afternoon became an obsession among Britons. Learn more about how teatime evolved from a royal custom into a pastime for the masses by watching Great Big Story’s video below.

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