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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
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).
a specialized organ of the state, whose competence includes the administration of justice in the interests of the ruling class—or under socialism, in the interests of all the people. A court performs its functions through the settlement—in a manner provided for by law—of criminal cases, civil, labor, and other disputes, and administrative and other violations of the law.
The courts arise contemporaneously with the state but are differentiated into independent organs only as the state mechanism grows and a specialized state apparatus takes shape. In prestate society, conflicts and disputes were settled by tribal elders or leaders, special clan or tribal assemblies, and the councils (for example, the rachinburgen, or rachimbourgs) chosen by such assemblies. Conflicts were also settled without resort to the courts, as in the customs of blood feud and talion.
In the slaveholding state, the various functions of state administration were initially still undifferentiated. One and the same organs of the slaveholding class exercised administration, commanded the military, and performed judicial functions. As slave-holding states developed and clan relations died out, however, a judicial system and courts emerged as an independent organ of the ruling class. In Athens and in Rome of the late republican period (third to first centuries B.C.), the courts were already separate and distinct from administration. Judicial collegia existed, such as the heliastic courts, and the institution of judicial defense was taking shape. The judicial institutions of the classical states underlay those used and developed in the epoch of feudalism. Usually, in the judicial proceedings of slaveholding society, only free citizens could defend their interests in court; slaves could not even be witnesses. The killing of a slave was not punishable; if a slave committed a crime, he was dealt with without recourse to the courts.
For the courts of feudal states, organization by estate was characteristic, so that there were peasant courts, ecclesiastical courts, and courts for other groups. Also characteristic were the broad judicial powers enjoyed by large landowners, who had judicial immunity and who meted out justice to their serfs. Centralization of the judicial system and increased state intervention in the work of the courts went hand in hand with the general centralization of authority and the establishment of absolutism. In this period, higher judicial organs made their appearance, such as the King’s Bench in England and the imperial court (Reichshofgericht) in Germany. Judicial centralization, in turn, went hand in hand with change in procedural forms, rejection of such irrational methods of proof as the ordeal and “God’s Judgment,” and abandonment of accusatory forms of judicial proceedings.
The bourgeoisie, which took shape within feudal society, attacked the feudal judicial system in its struggle for political power. The ideologists of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the French Encyclopedists and other figures of the Enlightenment, proposed a series of democratic principles for judicial organization (notably, the theory of separation of powers) and procedure: namely, the equality of all before the court and the law, trial by jury, the need for open and oral proceedings, the rejection of the system of formal proofs, the election of judges, and the presumption of innocence. Many of these principles are contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, in the constitutions of a number of bourgeois states (including the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US constitution), and in the constitutional acts of Great Britain.
On the whole, however, these principles have never been fully put into practice in the bourgeois states; some have even been rejected formally. For example, most judges are not elected but, in most states, are appointed for indefinite terms (seeIRREMOVABILITY OF JUDGES). The bourgeois courts have always been a naked tool in the hands of the ruling class of the bourgeoisie, “a blind, subtle instrument for the ruthless suppression of the exploited, and an instrument for protecting the interests of the moneybags” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 35, p. 270). Economic inequality deprives the working people of the real right to defense; as a rule, judges and juries are representative of the propertied strata of the population.
The bourgeois state’s introduction of new procedural forms and principles by no means signified a complete rejection of earlier forms of judicial procedure. Whenever the class struggle grows sharper, the bourgeoisie abandons the very legal system it itself has created, making use of simplified forms of judicial procedure (for example, the inquest-indictment) and disembarrassing itself of the role of law in the consideration of cases. The rejection of bourgeois-democratic principles of judicial procedure reached its extreme in fascist Germany and Italy, where reactionary criminal laws were adopted and extrajudicial punishment of progressives flourished.
In the epoch of the general crisis of capitalism, the law’s role in the working of the courts has diminished. Many bourgeois theorists, such as the legal realists, maintain that the courts should not be bound by legal norms and that the discretion of judges be broadened to an extraordinary degree, which has in practice led to judicial arbitrariness.
Contemporary bourgeois states have complex, ramified judicial systems, including civil, criminal, administrative, commercial, ecclesiastical, and other courts. These systems are headed by higher judicial organs, which often perform the functions of a constitutional court. The working of bourgeois courts, as parts of the mechanism of the bourgeois states, is regulated in detail by special legislation. However, the development of the bourgeois courts has generally tended toward enhancement of the punitive-repressive functions in the struggle against the interests of the working people. In the era of imperialism, on the other hand, certain functions of the courts have been transferred to other state organs of special competence, such as the separate and joint investigative committees of the US House and Senate and special commissions.
In prerevolutionary Russia, the history of the courts dates back to Kievan Rus’, where justice was the province of the prince and his officials, the posadniki and tiuny. In the Novgorod Feudal Republic, judicial authority rested with the veche (the town assembly, which was the court of highest instance), the prince, the posadniki (chief administrative officials), the archbishop, the starosta (a lower elected official), and bratchiny (fraternities endowed with the right to judge and to settle quarrels and conflicts among participants). In Muscovite Rus’ of the 15th to 17th centuries, it rested with the grand duke (tsar), the Boyar Duma, certain prikazy (government offices), and in the provinces, with the namestniki (vicegerents), the volosteli (the chief officials of the volosti, or small rural districts), and votchinniki (the owners of votchiny, or patrimonial estates). With the abolition of the system of kormleniia (“feeding”), judicial powers were transferred to the gubnye izby (offices in the guby, or judicial and police districts).
Peter I made the first attempts to separate the courts from the administration. In 1713 the office of landrikhter (magistrate) was established in the provinces, and in 1718, the office of oberlandrikhter (chief magistrate). However, the competence of these magistrates was not precisely defined, and the more complex cases had to be settled by the Justice Collegium. A military court and ecclesiastical court were also created. The Senate was the court of highest instance. Catherine II established a system of judicial institutions, from 1802 under the Senate, a system that comprised uezd (district) and zemskii (land) courts for the nobility, city and provincial courts for townsmen, and lower and upper rural courts (raspravy) for free peasants.
In the 1860’s, the judicial reform of 1864 was carried out, and the fundamentals of bourgeois judicial procedure therewith were introduced in Russia. A jury court, an elected justice of the peace court (mirovoi sud), and a body of professional attorneys were established.
After the Great October Socialist Revolution, by dint of Lenin’s decree on the courts of Nov. 22,1917, the judicial system of tsarist Russia was dismantled from top to bottom, from the Governing Senate to the justice of the peace courts. The basic link in the Soviet judicial system was the people’s court of the city or raion, which considered the overwhelming majority of civil and criminal cases. V. I. Lenin wrote, “The new court has been needed first and foremost for the struggle against the exploiters, who are trying to restore their domination, or to defend their privileges. ... But, in addition, the courts ... have another, still more important task. This task is to ensure the strictest discipline and self-discipline of the working people” (ibid., vol. 36, p. 163).
In socialist society, the courts are called upon to protect from any infringements: (1) the socialist social and state regime, the socialist system of economy, and socialist property, (2) the rights and legally protected interests of state enterprises, institutions, kolkhozes, and cooperative and other public organizations, and (3) the lawful rights and interests of citizens. It is likewise called upon to educate citizens in the spirit of loyalty to the homeland and to the cause of socialism, and in the spirit of exact and unde-viating execution of the laws and observance of discipline.
In most socialist countries, judges are selected either by the organs of state power or by the people through direct election. For courts of first instance, judges are elected by the citizens by universal, direct, secret, and equal suffrage; people’s assessors are elected at meetings of the working people of the particular enterprises and organizations. The judges and people’s assessors of the higher courts are usually elected at meetings of working people by the appropriate representative organs—in the USSR, for example, by the soviets of people’s deputies. The judges are responsible to the voters or organs that chose them and may be recalled or removed from office. As a rule, judicial organs correspond to administrative-territorial divisions. Cases are considered in the courts collegially, and judges and assessors enjoy equal rights during the examination of cases.
In the administration of justice in the socialist countries, judges are independent and subordinate only to the law; that is, they must decide cases independently of outside influence and pronounce sentences and decisions solely in accord with the law. Judicial proceedings are conducted in the language of the majority of the population of the region. Persons not having command of that language are secured a full acquaintance with the materials of the case through an interpreter; they also have the right to speak in court in their native language. Of great importance in the organization of the judicial system is the principle of open judicial examination; judicial examination is usually oral and open and may be closed only in instances provided for by law. The legislation of the socialist countries secures the accused person’s right to defense.
The fundamental principles of the organization and work of the courts are defined by the Constitution of the USSR and set forth in greater detail in the Basic Principles of Legislation on Judicial Organization of the USSR, Union Republics, and Autonomous Republics (1958), the Basic Principles of Criminal Procedure (1958), and the Basic Principles of Civil Procedure (1961). On the basis of and in accordance with these all-Union laws, the Union republics have adopted republic laws, including codes of criminal and civil procedure.
The judicial system of the USSR embraces the Supreme Court of the USSR, the supreme courts of the Union and autonomous republics, the krai, oblast, and city courts, the courts of the autonomous oblasts and autonomous okrugs, the raion and city people’s courts, and the military tribunals of the armed forces. The highest judicial organ, the Supreme Court of the USSR, supervises the administration of justice by the courts of the USSR and of the republics. The organization and procedure of the Supreme Court of the USSR are defined in the Law on the Supreme Court of the USSR, adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on Nov. 30,1979.
Judicial activity comprises the consideration and decision of civil cases with respect to disputes that affect the rights and interests of citizens, state enterprises, institutions, kolkhozes, cooperatives, and other public organizations. It also comprises the consideration of criminal cases and either the acquittal of the innocent or the application of measures of punishment prescribed by law to those found guilty of the commission of a crime.
All courts in the USSR are formed on the principle of the elec-tiveness of judges and people’s assessors. People’s judges of the raion and city people’s courts are elected by the citizens of a given raion or city on the basis of universal, equal, secret, and direct suffrage. The people’s assessors of these courts are elected at meetings of citizens at their places of work or residence. The people’s assessors of these courts are elected at general meetings of the working people. The people’s assessors and members of the oblast, krai, and supreme courts are elected by the respective oblast, krai, and supreme soviets. In all courts, cases are considered collegially—in courts of first instance by a judge and two people’s assessors; cases on appeal or on protest are considered in judicial collegia of higher courts by three members of the particular court.
Under the procedure established by legislation, the procurator takes part in the consideration of criminal and civil cases in administrative or judicial sessions. In addition, a public prosecutor or public defense counsel may take part in the judicial session.
Judicial proceedings are conducted in the language of the Union or autonomous republic, the autonomous oblast, or the autonomous okrug, or in the language spoken by the majority of the population in the region. Persons participating in court proceedings who do not have command of the language in which they are being conducted are secured full acquaintance with the materials in the case, are provided the services of an interpreter during the proceedings, and have the right to speak in court in their native language. The examination of cases in all courts is open. Hearings in camera are permitted in exceptional instances if this is required by the interests of state security or by reasonable determination of the court in cases of crimes committed by persons under 16 years of age, in cases of sex crimes, and in cases in which both parties so request if intimate aspects of their lives will be discussed in a court session. In all cases, sentence is pronounced publicly. All the accused have the right to defense. The court must ensure that the accused has the opportunity to defend himself from the charges by those means and methods provided for by law. In a civil trial, the parties are also given broad rights for the defense of their personal and property rights and interests.
REFERENCESLenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vols. 36 and 39.
Marksistsko-leninskaia obshchaia teoriia gosudarstva i prava: Osnovnye instituty i poniatiia. Moscow, 1970. Page 272.
Chernilovskii, Z. M. Vseobshchaia istoriia gosudarstva i prava. Moscow, 1973.
L. N. SMIRNOV
What does it mean when you dream about a court? (of Law)
Courts stand for a place of authority, presumed justice, and order, or the facade of these characteristics. The dreamer may be struggling with issues of fear and guilt, and this kind of dream may be the person’s conscience trying to communicate. Courts also reflect issues of judging or feeling judged. (See also Judge/Judgment).