When you are planning your relocation to London, there is no way that you’re intending on breaking any laws while you’re in the UK. Despite everybody’s best intention, mistakes can and do happen and every country states that ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law. Unless you’re a diplomat and can wangle your way out of a parking ticket, you may want to have an understanding of the differences in laws and the legal system when you’re moving to London. There are subtle difference between the laws in the UK and the US that may bear thinking about.
The biggest similarity of the two legal systems is that they are both made up of distinct legal and geographical areas. The UK is divided into England and Wales, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the US has 50 individual states each with their own state laws and legal systems. The biggest difference in the legal system is that in the US, the courts have the final say in lawmaking, whereas in the UK it is parliament.
After you’re settled in London you may hear the terms “barrister” and “solicitor” when used to describe members of the legal profession. A lawyer in the UK is either a barrister or a solicitor: A barrister will represent you in court and a solicitor will help prepare the case. It should be noted that a solicitor is a full lawyer, just not able to present a case in the higher courts.
Most countries have the same basic common laws with a few subtle differences in interpretation. One law in England that is quite different to the US is the age at which you are legally allowed to consume alcohol. In the US, in most states the legal age is 21, while in the UK it is 18. Good news! Some laws however, especially the libel laws, are completely different in the UK, and if you’re intent on suing someone, you have to have a pot of money and time to burn in the UK – we’re taking hundreds of thousands of pounds and a few years…
The rules of arrest, if you are ever charged with a criminal offense, are very similar. You do NOT have to say anything and you have the right to a solicitor immediately. As a foreigner living in London you also have the right to contact your embassy immediately in any legal situation.
It can happen to the best of us, and if you’re living in London, and you do get arrested, then you need to know what to do and who to call to avoid being taken to the Tower of London and beheaded (not really). The first thing that you need to know is that your right to remain silent is a part of the British constitution. If you are arrested all that you have to give, in terms of information, to your arresting officer is your name, your address and any identification documentation.
There are very strict laws governing search and arrest procedures in the United Kingdom and you are allowed to ask why you are being arrested and what the charges are before you accompany a police officer to a local station. The best thing you can do if you are asked to ‘help the police with their inquiries’, is to get legal advice as soon as you have been arrested. Asking to see a solicitor (lawyer) is not an admission of guilt under the laws of the United Kingdom. If you do not have a solicitor on speed dial, and let’s face it, not many people do. You can ask the Custody Sergeant at the police station for the Duty Solicitor who will represent you, much like a public defender. You have the right to consult with your solicitor at any time and for the meeting to be held confidentially.
The biggest thing you must remember is not to sign any piece of paper until your solicitor gives you the go ahead, and remember that there is no such thing as an informal interview with the police once you have been arrested. Everything you say can be used against you to form a case that will be used in court. As a foreigner, your embassy and the authorities in your country of origin, will be informed as well. If you feel you have been arrested unfairly, then your first call should be to your embassy that will be able to offer you legal advice.
Keeping the number of your embassy on speed dial is probably the most useful thing you can do when you are living in London. Lost passports and travel documents; visas and work permits. These are just few of the facilities that your embassy can help you with. Remember that just because you are a citizen of another country does not mean that the local laws do not apply to you. Only embassy officials have diplomatic immunity.
Most foreigners are arrested in London for drunkenness or drunk driving and seeing your new home from the inside of the “Custody Suite” at your local police station is not fun.
We don’t want to dwell for too long on the negative…
While you’re living in London you only ever want to visit the ‘Old Bailey’ as a visitor to marvel and the history, architecture and the proceedings. If you’re attending the ‘Old Bailey’ on business, you’re probably in the dock for something pretty serious, and you need to get lawyered up as fast as possible! If however, you’re interested in learning more about the city of London and your new home town, then get out of your new London apartment for the day and head down to the ‘Old Bailey’.
The ‘Old Bailey’ is the name given to the Central Criminal Court in London; its nickname derives from the street in which the main building was built. It is one of a number of buildings in London making up the highest criminal court in the country. If you’re an American moving to London then the Crown Court which is within the Central Criminal Court can be likened to the very highest criminal courts in America.
While the ‘Old Bailey’ is not a conventional tourist attraction, it is one of the most interesting places to visit in London. The building is built on the site of the ancient Newgate Gaol and has had a tradition in English law for hundreds of years. British courtrooms are much more formal than courts in other countries and traditional dress, which includes the traditional wig, is worn by all advocates, who appear before a judge who is robed. While it may seem at odds with modern times, and has no bearing on a modern legal system, there is actually a good reason as to why the uniform and traditional dress is still worn. In cases heard by a jury, it is not the antics of the lawyer or the dress of the lawyer that should have any bearing on the case at hand. If all court officers are dressed in the same manner there can be no grandstanding or theatrics.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting the ‘Old Bailey’ is the chance to watch a trial from one of the public galleries. Children under the age of fourteen are not permitted into the courts, but there is no charge for a visit to the ‘Old Bailey’ and it is another fascinating glimpse into the mix of traditions and modernity while you are living in London.