Common law is the immemorial customary law of the realm, as amended by statutes and by precedents of the courts; it is distinguished from Roman or civil law and from canon law. Equity, which in theory roughly approximates to natural justice, is most commonly associated with the Court of Chancery.
Conflicts arose between the two systems of law at times. In face of mounting concern about the state of the law the nineteenth century saw a number of measures designed to deal with particular difficulties, notably the Uniformity of Process Act 1832 and the Common Law Procedure Acts 1852 and 1854. To relieve the Chancery of its bankruptcy work a Court of Bankruptcy was established in 1831. In 1842 the equity jurisdiction of the Exchequer passed to Chancery. In the same year the work of the country commissioners of the Bankruptcy Court passed to local district courts and then, from 1847, partly, and from 1869 wholly, to the newly-established County Courts.
In 1858 all probate jurisdiction, including that exercised formerly by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and other ecclesiastical courts as to personal estate, passed to a Court of Probate established within the ordinary legal system. At the same time, a Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was established, thereby depriving the ecclesiastical courts of their matrimonial jurisdiction also.
Despite changes disquiet about the legal system persisted and led to the appointment of a royal commission in 1867 to inquire into the operation and working of the superior courts. Its first report was issued in 1869, most of its recommendations being brought into effect by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873. It came into effect in 1875 and consolidated the existing common law, equity and specialised courts to form a Supreme Court of Judicature, under the presidency of the Lord Chancellor and comprising a High Court of Justice and a Court of Appeal.
The High Court consisted of five divisions known respectively as the King's (or Queen's) Bench Division, the Common Pleas Division, the Exchequer Division, the Chancery Division and the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. Provision was also made for the jurisdiction of assize courts, including those in the counties palatine of Lancaster and Durham, and the Central Criminal Court to be vested in the High Court and for the transaction of certain civil business locally by the establishment of District Registries. It was also provided that Divisional Courts of the High Court should be constituted to consider, among other things, appeals from inferior courts.
Appeals from the High Court lay to the Court of Appeal. Under the 1873 act the House of Lords' function as the final court of appeal was abolished but before this was due to take effect a new Conservative government came into office in 1874 and provided for the continuation of the Lords' powers until 1876 by the Supreme Court of Judicature (1873) Amendment Act 1875. This was followed by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 which provided for the appointment of judges as life peers called lords of appeal in ordinary, thereby confirming the role of the House of Lords as the supreme judicial authority.
In 1881, by an order in Council of 16 December 1880, the Common Pleas and Exchequer Divisions of the High Court were amalgamated with the Queen's Bench Division which thereafter assumed the work of all three. Under the Bankruptcy Act 1883 the London Court of Bankruptcy became part of the High Court. An earlier merger had been provided for by the original 1873 act but was repealed before coming into effect by the amending act of 1875.
Under the Lunacy Act 1890 a judge of the High Court was given responsibility for the determination of lunacy questions with day-to-day work vested in a Management and Administration Department under the direction of the masters in lunacy.
A Companies Court was also established as part of the High Court under the Companies (Winding up) Act 1890. From 1895 a practice grew up whereby commercial actions were dealt with by a specialist judge of the Queen's Bench Division from a commercial list. This was formalised under the Administration of Justice Act 1970 which established a Commercial Court as a separate court within the Queen's Bench Division.
Under the same act the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division was re-named the Family Division and its jurisdiction in divorce and noncontentious probate cases passed to this new division together with other High Court business of a family nature such as guardianship and wardship proceedings previously dealt with by the Chancery Division. Contentious probate work was transferred to the Chancery Division and a separate Admiralty Court was established as part of the Queen's Bench Division.
On 1 January 1972, following the report of the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions, 1966 to 1969, a new Crown Court of the Supreme Court was established under the Courts Act 1971. Under the same act the Palatine Courts of Lancaster and Durham were merged with the High Court and the courts of assize and quarter sessions were abolished. The criminal jurisdiction of the latter courts passed to the new Crown Court which also absorbed the Crown Courts of Liverpool and Manchester, established as part of the High Court under the Criminal Justice Administration Act 1956, to deal with the quarter sessions work in those cities and with the assize cases for south Lancashire.
The appellate jurisdiction of the quarter sessions courts also passed to the new Crown Court. To facilitate the hearing of criminal and civil cases, other than in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the act provided that both the new Crown Court and the High Court could sit in any location in England and Wales, as directed by the Lord Chancellor; it was also stipulated that when sitting in the city of London the Crown Court was to be known as the Central Criminal Court.
The Lord Chancellor's Office is responsible for the administration of the High Court and the Crown Court and the deployment of judges on circuit.