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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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Animals
The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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literature
Found: A Long-Lost Copy of John Donne's Fart-Filled Satire
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Courtesy of Westminster Abbey

If you’ve studied the writings of John Donne, the 17th-century English poet and priest, you know that many of his verses are filled with sexual innuendo that's masked with religious symbols and imagery. There’s nothing subtle, however, about the socially charged work by Donne recently rediscovered in the archives of Westminster Abbey, according to The Guardian.

Found buried inside a tin trunk among hundreds of fragments of documents, the handwritten manuscript is the earliest-known copy of Donne’s The Courtier's Library. The mock library catalog satirizes Jacobean England, public figures, and religious corruption, and could have led to the writer’s downfall if it had been seen by anyone aside from his most intimate confidants.

Two pages of the handwritten manuscript by John Donne
Two pages of the handwritten manuscript by John Donne
Courtesy of Westminster Abbey

Donne wrote The Courtier’s Library—still a relatively obscure work— in the early 1600s, and this particular copy has been dated back to 1603 to 1604. While not in Donne's own handwriting, the find is important. “It gives us important new clues about the life and writing of one of our most important writers,” said Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King’s College London, according to a news release.

Matthew Payne, who works as the keeper of documents at Westminster Abbey, found the lost Donne manuscript in fall 2016 while perusing the tin trunk’s unsorted contents. The truck mostly contained fragments of administrative records dating back to the late medieval and early modern period, but amid the mouse-eaten papers Payne found one complete document that had no title or author listed. The work was written in Latin, and with the help of Google, Payne identified it as Donne’s Catalogus Librorum Satiricus, or The Courtier’s Library.

The tin trunk where the handwritten manuscript by John Donne was discovered at Westminster Abbey.
The tin trunk where the handwritten manuscript by John Donne was discovered.
Courtesy of Westminster Abbey

Donne wrote The Courtier’s Library when he was a young, bitter man working as a lawyer to make ends meet and support a growing family. He’d recently lost his title as the secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, England's Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, after he’d secretly marrying Egerton's niece, Anne More. More’s father, a courtier and parliament member, disapproved of the relationship, and when he learned of his daughter's union, Sir George More briefly imprisoned Donne and stripped him of his post.

Donne circulated The Courtier’s Library among his friends and patrons, but didn’t dare to print it during the reign of King James I, when anti-Catholicism was on the rise. (Donne was raised Catholic but eventually converted to Anglicanism.) In addition to poking fun at religion, it made fun of real public officials. One of the scandalous catalog’s imaginary books features "the many confessions of poisoners given to Justice Manwood, and used by him afterwards in wiping his buttocks, and in examining his evacuations.” The manuscript also contains sections called “Ars Spiritualis Inescandi Mulieres" ("The Spiritual Art of Enticing Women"), “On the Nothingness of a Fart,” and “Concerning the method of emptying the dung from Noah’s Ark.”

Nobody quite knows how the early copy of The Courtier’s Library made its way to Westminster Abbey, but experts say its rediscovery is timely, given today’s political climate. “We might think of ‘fake news’ as a modern phenomenon, but Donne saw something similar happening around him,” Smith said. “He was horrified at the corruption of truth by the powerful, greedy, and willfully ignorant, and he responded with this vicious satire, which was too dangerous to print until after his death. This discovery helps us understand how it circulated furtively among his trusted friends.”

An essay describing the find will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Review of English Studies. The manuscript itself will go on display from November 13 to November 18 in St Margaret’s Church, which is next door to Westminster Abbey.

[h/t The Guardian]

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