court, in law, official body charged with administering justice. The term is also applied to the judge or judges who fill the office and to the courtroom itself. Courts come into existence when legal relations are no longer entirely a private matter. Thus, courts do not exist in a society governed by vendetta, and they are of little consequence in one where composition for wrongs is the rule. In addition to law courts there are ecclesiastical courts, arbitral tribunals (e.g., for labor cases), administrative tribunals, and courts-martial (see military law).
See also conflict of laws.
Early Court Systems
The most ancient courts known, e.g., those of Egypt and Babylonia, were semiecclesiastical institutions that used religious rituals in deciding issues. In Greece the functions of a court were chiefly undertaken by citizens' assemblies that heard the arguments of orators. In Rome there was a clear evolution of the court system from priestly beginnings to a wholly secular, hierarchal organization staffed by professional jurists (see Roman law). Western Europe (after the collapse of Rome) and Anglo-Saxon England had mainly feudal courts of limited territorial authority, administering customary law, which differed in each locale.
Courts in England
In England, after the Norman Conquest (1066), royal authority was gradually extended over the feudal lords, and by the early 13th cent., although purely local courts had not been abolished, the supremacy of the central courts that had evolved from the Curia Regis [Lat.,=king's court], namely, the Court of Exchequer, the Court of Common Pleas, and King's Bench, was established. The Court of Common Pleas heard cases between ordinary subjects of the king, while King's Bench heard cases involving persons of high rank and acted as a court of appeals. Soon itinerant royal courts were established to spare civil litigants the labor and expense of going to the capital at Westminster and to afford hearings to persons held on criminal charges in county jails. By the 14th cent. the principal function of the central courts was to hear appeals from the circuit courts.
Unity was at least temporarily disrupted by the emergence (16th cent.) of equity as a distinct body of law administered by the chancery. The conflict of jurisdiction continued to some extent until 1875, when the Judicature Act of 1873 went into effect. As presently constituted as a result of subsequent reforms, the courts of England and Wales consist of the Court of Appeal, the High Court (with civil jurisdiction), the Crown Court (with criminal jurisdiction), the county courts, and the magistrates' courts. The High Court is divided, purely for administrative purposes, into three divisions: Chancery, Family, and King's (or Queen's) Bench. Appeals were in some instances taken from the court of appeal to the House of Lords, but the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established a Supreme Court for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which began work in 2009, ending the role of the House of Lords as the highest court of appeal. The judicial committee of the privy council, of which the Supreme Court justices are members, hears appeals from overseas territories still under British domain and from some Commonwealth countries.
Courts in the United States
In the United States there are two distinct systems of courts, federal and state. Each is supreme in its own sphere, but if a matter simultaneously affects the states and the federal government, the federal courts have the decisive power. The district court is the lowest federal court. Each state has at least one federal district, and some of the more populous states contain as many as four districts. There are 11 circuit courts of appeals (each with jurisdiction over a defined territory) and a court of appeals for the District of Columbia; these hear appeals from the district courts. There are, in addition, various specialized federal courts, including the Tax Court and the federal Court of Claims. Heading the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court systems of the states vary to some degree. At the bottom of a typical structure are local courts that have authority only in specific matters and jurisdictions (e.g., court of the justice of the peace, police court, and court of probate). County courts, or the equivalent, exercising general criminal and civil jurisdiction, are on the next level. All states have a highest court of appeals, and some also have intermediate appellate courts. In a few states separate courts of equity persist.
See court system in the United States for a fuller discussion of this topic.
See H. Potter, Historical Introduction to English Law and Its Institutions (4th ed. 1958, repr. 1969); L. Mayers, The American Legal System (rev. ed. 1964); R. M. Jackson, The Machinery of Justice in England (5th ed. 1967); M. Shapiro, Courts: A Comparative Political Analysis (1986); E. C. Surrency, History of the Federal Courts (1987); J. L. Waldman and K. M. Holland, The Political Role of Law Courts in Modern Democracies (1988).