Is the law different in England and Scotland?

Court room in Edinburgh, Scotland - photo by www.theedinburghblog.co.uk - CC-BY

Court room in Edinburgh, Scotland - photo by www.theedinburghblog.co.uk - CC-BY

Yes, there are many differences between Scots law and English law. It’s not just a question of small details for lawyers to worry about, but of two separate legal systems. Anyone moving from one side of the border to the other should bear this in mind.

Common legal issues that lead many people to consult a solicitor – like buying a house, or writing a will – are handled quite differently. When it comes to inheritance, just not getting round to drawing up a legal document won’t help. You may think you know who stands to inherit your property if you die without leaving a will, but the rules are not at all the same if you move from Glasgow to Gloucester.

Moving within the UK can affect divorce cases too. Did you read the newspaper story about the separated English couple where the man began divorce proceedings not long after starting a new job in Scotland? According to his ex-wife he “lured” her back by claiming to want a fresh start in a new home, and so their case ended up being heard north of the border. The divorcee says she lost a substantial amount of money by not having the split worked out in an English court.

Seek legal advice if you have any concerns about your situation. Don’t rely on journalists to explain the law to you – especially if you live in Scotland. UK radio, TV and newspapers often give advice on important financial or family matters that’s based purely on English law. If they remember to include a disclaimer, it may be in part of the programme that you don’t hear.

Criminal matters are dealt with differently too. It’s fairly well known that Scotland has an unusual “third verdict” of “not proven”, alongside “guilty” and “not guilty”.  Another illustration of two different systems at work is the size of juries at criminal trials, with 12 people in the south, 15 in the north. And the English Crown Prosecution Service does the work of a Scottish Procurator Fiscal.

So what is “UK law”? Sometimes it’s just a careless way of describing the law in the bigger of the two countries. More appropriately, it may refer to legislation drawn up by the government in London which is intended to apply equally in all parts of the United Kingdom. Not everyone realises that this can involve some careful behind-the-scenes handling of technicalities to make sure the law will work smoothly in both systems.

Even though Scotland and England have shared a monarch for 400 years and been legally “united” for 300 years, they have never united their legal systems. Scottish banknotes are different too, although interchangeable.

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