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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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Cotswold Archaeology
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Amateur Archaeologists in England Unearth Rare Roman Mosaic
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Cotswold Archaeology

For the past three years, amateur archaeologists and historians in southern England have been working side-by-side with volunteers to excavate several seemingly related local Roman sites. Now, just two weeks before the dig's scheduled conclusion, they've made a fantastic discovery: a rare 4th-century CE mosaic that is being hailed as "the most important of its type in Britain in more than half a century," according to The New York Times.

Dating to roughly 380 CE, the mosaic was unearthed near the village of Boxford in Berkshire. The project—which included a rotating assembly of 55 members—involved local interest groups like the Boxford History Project and the Berkshire Archaeological Research Group, and was overseen by Cotswold Archaeology, a company that helps builders preserve archaeological finds. Funding was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which gives grants to heritage projects across the UK.

In the project's first two years, the group members discovered a large Roman villa, a bathhouse, and a farmstead. In 2017, they began excavating the main villa, a site that yielded pottery, jewelry, coins, and other ancient objects. None of these artifacts, however, were as spectacular as the mosaic, which volunteers unearthed in a moment of serendipity shortly before funding for the dig ended.

Revealed sections of the artwork depict scenes featuring Bellerophon, a mythological Greek hero, along with other fabled figures. Bellerophon is famous in legends for capturing the winged horse Pegasus and for defeating the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail.

Citizen archaeologists in Boxford, England unearth a Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE.
Cotswold Archaeology

"The range and style of imagery is very rare in the UK, where simple geometric patterns are the norm," Duncan Coe, a principal heritage consultant with Cotswold Archaeology, tells Mental Floss. "The combination of artwork and inscriptions is unique in this country. The range of imagery is also unique, with at least two scenes from the story of Bellerophon, a character from Greek mythology, augmented by Hercules and the Centaur, Cupid and telamones [male statues used as a column]—and we only have half of the mosaic revealed so far."

Excavators uncovered nearly 20 feet of the mosaic, but ultimately reburied it to deter looters and prevent damage. Members of Boxford's local archaeological community hope to secure funding and return to the site—now dubbed the Boxford villa—to dig up the entire scene.

A Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE, unearthed by citizen archaeologists in Boxford England.
Cotswold Archaeology

In addition to teaching experts about the villa's owners—who were evidently sophisticated and wealthy—and Boxford's ancient heritage, the newly discovered mosaic isn't just any ordinary artwork, according to Coe: "This isn't just an isolated mosaic, but a small, but very important, part of a bigger jigsaw that advances our understanding of what was happening in southern England just before the Roman government abandoned Britain," he says.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Art
Berlin Is Now Home to the World's Largest Street Art Museum
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With vibrant murals and colorfully tagged buildings and alleyways, Berlin is internationally famous for its street art scene. Now, the German city is home to a new museum that celebrates urban visual works from around the world, according to Deutsche Welle.

Billed as the largest of its kind, the Museum for Urban Contemporary Art made its grand public debut in mid-September, complete with a street festival that allowed visitors to tag a community wall. The five-story museum is housed in a converted late 19th-century house in Berlin's Schöneberg district, with a façade that's covered in a rotating assortment of murals. Its collections include between 100 and 150 international and local artists, including big names like Shepard Fairey and Banksy.

"Except for two or three historical pieces from the collection that must be shown simply because they are important for the development of the scene, all exhibits were specially created for the museum—all by artists who started on the street and continue to work there," Yasha Young, the museum's artistic director, told Deutsche Welle.

The Museum for Urban Contemporary Art's opening exhibition includes portraits, pop art, and socially conscious works, and serves as an introduction to urban art. Other attractions include a library stocked with street art photographer Martha Cooper's collection of books and magazines, and a central staircase adorned with British street artist Ben Eine's signature colored letters, according to the AP.

Some purists might argue that street art belongs on, well, the streets, instead of inside a museum. That said, the Museum for Urban Contemporary Art appears to be committed to keeping the art form's democratic spirit alive. Artists will be routinely invited to create art on the museum's exterior, special grant programs will provide practicing artists and curators funded opportunities to hone their vision, and the central exhibition space changes every year to highlight different movements and talents. The museum also plans to host workshops, live performances, and art shows.

Plus, some might say that a museum dedicated to graffiti and street art—an overlooked niche that galvanized greats like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring—is long overdue.

According to BBC News, British street artist Louis Masai shared this at the Museum for Urban Contemporary Art's opening: "It means that the artists who have been a part of this scene and movement for a long time are now getting the respect that they deserve."

[h/t Deutsche Welle]

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