A court is a public forum used to adjudicate disputes and dispense civil, labour, administrative and criminal justice under its laws. In common law and civil law, courts are the central means for dispute resolution, and it is generally understood that all persons have an ability to bring their claims before a court. Similarly, those accused of a crime have the right to present their defense before a court.
Court facilities range from a simple farmhouse for a village court in a rural community to huge buildings housing dozens of courtrooms in large cities.
A court is a kind of deliberative assembly with special powers, called its jurisdiction, to decide certain kinds of judicial questions or petitions put to it. It will typically consist of one or more presiding officers, parties and their attorneys, bailiffs, reporters, and perhaps a jury.
The term "court" is often used to refer to the president of the court, also known as the "judge" or the "bench," or the panel of such officials. For example, in the United States the term "court" (in the case of U.S. federal courts) by law is used to describe the judge himself or herself.
In the United States, the legal authority of a court to take action is based on three major issues: (1) Personal jurisdiction; (2) Subject matter jurisdiction; and (3) Venue.
Jurisdiction, meaning "to speak the law" is the power of a court over a person or claim. In the United States, a court must have both personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Each state establishes a court system for the territory under its control. This system allocates work to courts or authorized individuals by granting both civil and criminal jurisdiction. The grant of power to each category of court or individual may stem from a provision of a written constitution or from an enabling statute.
Trial and appellate courts
Courts may be classified as trial courts (sometimes termed "courts of first instance") and appellate courts. Some trial courts may function with a judge and a jury: juries make findings of fact under the direction of the judge who reaches conclusions of law and, in combination, this represents the judgment of the court. In other trial courts, decisions of both fact and law are made by the judge or judges.
Civil law courts and common law courts
The two major models for courts are the civil law courts and the common law courts. Civil law courts are based upon the judicial system in France, while the common law courts are based on the judicial system in Britain. In most civil law jurisdictions, courts function under an "inquisitorial system."In the common law system, most courts follow the "adversarial system."Procedural law governs the rules by which courts operate: civil procedure for private disputes (for example); and criminal procedure for violation of the criminal law.