A court is a body formed to adjudicate on criminal charges and civil disputes, and to determine the best path to justice. The term comes from the French cour, meaning a fenced yard or enclosed area; it was within these areas that the king or nobleman would conduct hearings. Today, Western democratic nations have courts that are (or should be) independent of politics, rulers and the government. They are overseen by magistrates or judges, who act as independent and impartial arbiters of justice. Courts are expected to follow due process, to facilitate natural justice and to uphold the rule of law. They are expected to be fair to all parties: to the accused and the accuser, to witnesses and to victims of crime. Courts do not just ‘make up’ decisions or procedures according to the whim of the judge, the jury or public opinion. They must closely follow legislation and the decisions, precedents and conventions of previous courts.
Courts are classified or described according to their function or jurisdiction (area of authority). These things are not mutually exclusive, as one court will often have two or more functions. The High Court of Australia, for example, is both an appellate court and a constitutional court. The Supreme Court of Victoria is both a court of original jurisdiction, where serious criminal offences are heard for the first time, and an appellate court. Some of the most functions of our courts are:
To hear criminal and civil matters. The main function of courts is to hear criminal trials and civil disputes. A court where a case is heard in the first instance is called the ‘court of original jurisdiction’. Minor crimes, for example, are first heard in the Magistrates’ Court in Australian States, while murder trials are first tried in the Supreme Courts.
To hear appeals. These are courts authorised to consider appeals made against the decisions and sentences of trial courts in a lower hierarchy. The County Court of Victoria, for example, may hear appeals from the Magistrates Court. When a court is considering such an appeal it is referred to as the appellate court. When used generically, the term supreme court refers to the highest court in a hierarchy – or the highest court to which parties have a right to automatic appeal. In the States of Australia these courts are called the Supreme Court (with a capital ‘S’).
To hear specialist matters. Some courts are specialist courts, responsible for hearing particular types of cases like family law disputes (the Family Court of Australia) or inquests (the Coroners Court). Despite their specialisation these courts may share or have overlapping jurisdiction with other courts in the hierarchy.
To uphold and interpret constitutions. A few courts are responsible for interpreting and applying constitutional law. They also decide whether legislation is constitutionally valid. Nations with codified constitutions usually have a constitutional court. In Australia the High Court is responsible for upholding, interpreting and applying the Constitution; in the United States this role is fulfilled by the Supreme Court.