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Introduction to law in Wales
Introduction to law in Wales

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1.2 Further developments

The system established by Hywel Dda continued (with additions and alterations) until the thirteenth century. It became a symbol in the struggles with England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Following the conquest by Edward I in 1282, Wales began to be governed by the laws of England. At this stage in the development of the legal system the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan/Statute of Wales passed by Edward I replaced Welsh criminal law with English law. Welsh law continued in use for civil cases (such as contracts and sureties), although there were changes in civil law, so that illegitimate sons were no longer able to claim inheritance.

The position was not clearly formalised until the Acts of Union 1536 and 1543, which were passed by the Henry VIII, made Wales subject to English laws in both criminal and civil matters. Parliamentary seats for MPs from Wales were however provided by the Acts of Union.

The court system is also an important part of any legal system or jurisdiction. This was not mentioned in the 1536 Act, but the 1543 Act established a separate court system for Wales. The need to take account of local Welsh circumstances was recognised and The Court of Great Sections in Wales were established. While this meant that Welsh courts applied the same laws as the English courts, there were significant differences in the way in which they chose to do so.

The Court of Great Sessions continued until 1831, when it was abolished by The Administration of Justice Act 1830 and a single court system for England and Wales was created.

Activity 1: Law as an element of national identity

Timing: Timing: 10 minutes

Is it important to have a separate legal system in order to maintain a sense of national identity?


Different people will have different opinions on this, and may use different sources of evidence to support their view. For example, Scotland has maintained a separate legal system from England and Wales, and this may have played an important role in preserving Scottish national identity. On the other hand, many people may not know that these differences exist. Their ideas about national identity may be related more to culture, geography or language, rather than legal differences. Wales has maintained a sense of distinctiveness during the period when it did not have its own legal system.

Another aspect of this issue is the increasing importance of European law. If many aspects of law are ‘harmonised’ throughout the European Union, for example, then the legal differences between different nations within Europe will decrease. You may have strong views about whether or not this is a good thing. Reducing the differences between legal systems may make trade easier, and allow disputes to be resolved more easily; however, many people may feel that there is a loss of democratic accountability if laws are made a long way away, and by people with whom they may feel little connection.