- This article is about courts of law. For alternative meanings see: Court (disambiguation).
A court is an official, public forum which a public power establishes by lawful authority to adjudicate disputes, and to dispense civil, labour, administrative and criminal justice under the law.
Types Of Courts
Some courts may function with a jury that make decisions about the facts before the court under the direction of the judge; in other courts, decisions of both fact and law are made by the judge or judges, this is particularly common in appellate courts where juries are unusual in most jurisdictions.
The extent of a court's power to hear the various matters which come before it—its "jurisdiction"—may stem from a provision of a written constitution, from an enabling statute or, for example in English Law, it may be inherent, deriving from the Common Law origin of the court.
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.
Both unipersonal and pluripersonal courts exist. The various matters which come before a pluripersonal court usually come into the ambit of a particular judge, or of a judicial officer (such as a court commissioner) serving in the capacity of a judge pro tem. Every court has a presiding judge and may have one or more other judges and/or judicial officers assigned to various court departments.
The actual enclosed space in which a judge regularly holds court is called a courtroom. In common law jurisdictions, there are certain traditions as to how courtrooms are decorated and organized, which together emphasize the power of the state for all who enter.
First, the walls are often partially or completely wood-paneled.
The judge always sits behind a raised desk, known as the bench. Behind him are the great seal of the jurisdiction and the flags of the appropriate federal and state governments (or just the national government in unitary jurisdictions). The judge bangs a gavel to keep order and usually wears a special black or red robe.
Adjacent to the bench are the witness stand and the desks where the court clerk and the court reporter sit. The courtroom is divided into two parts by a waist-high wooden barrier known as the bar. The bailiff stands against one wall and keeps order in the courtroom.
On one side is the judge's bench, the tables for the plaintiff, the defendant, and their respective counsel, and a separate group of seats known as the jury box where the jury sits (in jurisdictions that allow for jury trials). Apart from the parties to the case and any witnesses, only the lawyers can literally pass the bar (court personnel and jury members usually enter through separate doors), and this is why the term "the bar" has come to refer to the legal profession as a whole. There is usually a podium between the two tables where the lawyers may stand when they argue before the judge.
The other side of the bar is open to the general public and there are usually seats for curious spectators.
It should be noted that all of the above applies only to trial courts. Appellate courts in common law jurisdictions are not finders of fact, so they do not use juries or hear evidence; that is the trial court's job. Therefore, in an appellate court, there is no witness stand or jury box, and the bench is much larger to accommodate multiple judges or justices.
Layout in England and Wales
Courts are not laid out in the above manner in England and Wales.
In the first place, judges do not, as a general rule, use gavels to "keep order". Most courts are sufficiently orderly that a gavel would not be necessary. It is also unusual for there to be a particular individual whose role is to keep order. In a criminal court, the defendant will usually be escorted by members of the security firm that has the contract to serve that court. In rare circumstances in civil trials a bailiff or someone else charged to keep order may be present (for example if a tenant who is due to be evicted for violent behaviour arrives in court drunk).
Courts vary considerably in their layout, which depends a great deal on the history of the building and the practicalities of its use. While some courts are wood panelled, most are not. Depending on the layout of the room, a claimant may sit on either the right or left in a civil court, just as the prosecution may sit on either side (usually the opposite side to the jury) in a criminal court.
It is almost invariable practice for advocates to speak standing up, but from where they were seated they do not move from their place in order to do so. There is rarely if ever space for them to move in any case.
All appellate courts are capable of hearing evidence (and also to be finders of fact), for example where there is an allegation of bias in the lower court, or where fresh evidence is adduced in order to persuade the court to allow a retrial. In those cases witness evidence may be necessary and many appellate courts have witness stands.
Flags are rarely seen in English courts. It is most common for the Royal Coat of Arms to be placed above and behind the judge, or presiding magistrate, although there are exceptions to this. For example in the City of London magistrates' court a sword stands vertically behind the judge which is flanked by the arms of the City and the Crown.
The schedule of official court proceedings is called a docket; the term is also synonymous with a court's caseload as a whole.
Courtrooms and courthouses, especially in major cities, tend to be much more chaotic than as they are shown in the media. This is because the media prefers to show the drama and dignity of trials, but in between trials, courtrooms are full of a flurry of activity as lawyers and court staff run in and out taking care of routine minor business.
Criminal courtrooms are especially busy with a constant flow of arraignments and plea bargaining colloquies, and the bailiffs in such places have to shout all the time to get people to quiet down (although this would be very rare in England and Wales -- see above).