Lesson 3: Overview of Court System

Topic 3: History and Traditions

Where Did Our Court System Begin?

The model for our court system comes from feudal times in England. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the King began to hold court to listen to his subjects’ complaints. Gradually, this responsibility was passed to his advisors. They became judges in formal courts: the Court of the King’s Bench (for criminal cases); the Court of Common Pleas (for private conflicts); and the Exchequer Court (for monetary disputes). These courts became the basis of the English court system.

What Features Distinguish Our Courts?

When you enter a courtroom, especially one of the higher courts, one thing that strikes you immediately is the formal, dignified atmosphere. Not so long ago, judges and lawyers wore wigs to court, just as dignified courtiers wore in the 18th century. Today, judges and lawyers can still be found wearing flowing, black robes. These formalities are meant to emphasize the seriousness of court proceedings. Frivolity is out of place in court.

Another main feature is that courts are generally open to the public. You have only to think of the secret courts of military dictatorships to appreciate how an open court system helps to preserve fundamental human rights. Justice that is open to public scrutiny and criticism must be fair and have the support of the public. It is only in exceptional cases that the courts are closed to the public to protect the rights of individuals. The trials of young people are sometimes closed. The court can prohibit press coverage of preliminary criminal hearings in order to prevent the public, from which the jury will be selected, from prejudging an accused person.

Another distinguishing feature of our system is its independence, or impartiality. Once appointed, judges are difficult to remove from office and therefore enjoy a security of tenure (guaranteed permanent employment) that gives them some immunity (protection) from threats and bribes. Think of a judge as an impartial decision-maker who comes to court with an open mind, ready to be persuaded by either side of the case.

The structure of legal argument that was developed in our courts – the adversary system – allows the judge to hear both sides argued vigorously.