The English common law legal system, developed over many centuries, is also the foundation of many legal systems throughout the English-speaking countries of the world. It continued to apply in England and Wales after the Treaty of Union because the terms of the Treaty specifically guaranteed the continued existence of Scotland's separate legal system, which meant that England's system has also remained separate.

The essence of English common law is that it is made by judges sitting in courts, applying their common sense and knowledge of legal precedent to the facts before them. The court system is headed by the Supreme Court of Judicature of England and Wales, consisting of the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice (for civil cases) and the Crown Court (for criminal cases). The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (usually just referred to as "The House of Lords") is presently the highest court for both criminal and civil cases in England and Wales though recent constitutional changes will see the powers of the House of Lords transfer to a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. A decision of the highest appeal court in England and Wales, the House of Lords, is binding on every other court in the hierarchy, and they will follow its directions.

Crime in England and Wales increased in the period between 1981 and 1995 though, since that peak, there has been an overall fall of 42% in crime from 1995 to 2006/7.Despite the fall in crime rates, the prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the same period, to over 80,000, giving England and Wales the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe at 147 per 100,000,Her Majesty's Prison Service which reports to the Ministry of Justice, manages most of the prisons within England and Wales.

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