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What...? There is more than one court system?

Updated: Sep 25

When we think about courts, these images pop up in our minds...

Yes, when we hear the word "court", these main roles come to our mind — judge/justice, lawyers (or barristers), witness, etc.


So, from today's title, you can see that we will be exploring major misconceptions/queries you might have whilst learning about courts and their system.

Misconception #1: There's only one type of court in a country — criminal.

When we watch tv-series related to courts, we often see that there will be suspected criminals, prosecutors, lawyers, and victims. Therefore, we will naturally link courts with crimes together.

However, courts DO NOT only judge on criminal cases, there are so many other areas of law that judges still have to deal with. In general, cases are categorized into two main areas: Criminal Law and Civil Law.

Yes, criminal law is what we are all familiar with. But what is civil law...?

To start, let's break the two down.

The first obvious difference between these two is the parties which are involved.

  1. Criminal law - between the government and a private defendant(s)

  2. Civil law - between the private plaintiff(s) and private defendant(s)

So, cases involved in criminal law should be called prosecution; a defendant will be guilty/innocent. In civil law should be called a lawsuit; a defendant will be liable/not liable.

Ohhh, so a breach of contract is actually not criminal law, but civil law? Yes.

That's why you hear about workers sue their companies for the violation of their rights, they are filing a lawsuit — not prosecution.

The second difference is the standard by which courts view the cases.

  1. Criminal law - proof beyond a reasonable doubt

  2. Civil law - a preponderance of the evidence

Now, guess which one the court holds stricter standards against.

If you picked number one, then you're right! Why? It's because for civil law if it is more likely than not that the violation had happened, then the plaintiff wins.

So for those of you who like to know the exact percentages, where the plaintiff prevails, here it is:

  1. Criminal trial - 98% or 99%

  2. Civil trial - as little as 51% of probability, plaintiff prevails

That's why we've all heard about the Blackstone ratio:

"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

The third difference is the penalties that defendants receive.

  1. Criminal law - fine, jail, injunctions, restraining order

  2. Civil law - financial compensation, restraining order

What? Don't all baddies go to jail? Nope.

For civil law, the punishments are mostly monetary. This is aimed to protect individual parties' rights.

But for criminal law, penalties are aimed to punish, rehabilitate, and protect our community.

❓Since these are two different laws, will they be reviewed in separate courts?

Some countries do decide criminal and civil cases together. But for the US, the two issues are decided in separate courts.

🚨Be alert that there may be cases where plaintiffs involved are both government and a private party. Then, the case can be filed both in criminal and civil courts. For instance, if Person A is injured in a car crash where Person B is completely at fault. The government will be responsible for prosecuting B with criminal charges, but Person A is responsible to file a lawsuit against B in civil court to received full monetary compensation.

Here is just a world cloud of examples of civil and criminal law:


Misconception #2: In trial courts (or crown courts in the UK), trial courts are heard by judges only.

No, in trial courts, typically, juries and judges will hear the case.

📖 Juries - consist of 12 (some states have 6) laymen who sworn to decide on a case given the evidence before them

❓Why are juries needed?

It helps uphold democracy and allows normal people to understand of their legal system works. It fosters different views to be expressed and brings more 'life experience' than judges.

❓How are juries selected in the US?

Juries are randomly selected from multiples lists (e.g. voter registration) and summoned to the court.

❓What if you are selected as a jury but do not respond to summon by the court?

It can result in up to two years of incarceration or a substantial fine. So you need to have a legitimate reason to be excused from jury duty (e.g. Extreme Financial Hardship, Being Elderly, Surgery Reasons, etc.)

❓Can lawyers be selected as a jury?

It is exceedingly rare as their knowledge of law may unhelpfully influence others' decisions — which results in bias.


Misconception #3: Every country has a unified legal system.

The United Kingdom does not have a unified legal system for historical reasons. Instead, it has three separate systems:

  1. England and Wales

  2. Scotland

  3. Northern Ireland

Below is the court system for England and Wales


Misconception #4: There is only one court system in the US - trial, the court of appeal, and last SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States).

The system mentioned above is the federal court system. But that's not the only system for US.

We can deduce the formation of US courts from how America was established. America is made up of 50 states, who all signed the Constitution, which formed the "United States Government". The powers are mainly split between states and the federal government. This is known as the division of power - people back then were afraid that of an overpowered federal government.

Therefore, it is also reasonable for courts to split into two court systems: federal and state courts.

Similar to criminal and civil law, there are also many differences between federal and state courts. duh... :P

Long story short -

Major difference: jurisdiction (types of case which courts are allowed to hear)

  1. Federal court - related to Constitution, violations against federal law or types provided by Congress

  2. State court - have broad jurisdiction, related to violations against the state law (this is where many of the cases take place in)

  3. not allowed to hear are lawsuits against the United States and those involving certain specific federal laws

Pathways are pretty similar (here is an example):

❓How are Federal District Court (which means trial court) and Court of Appeals split?

❓Can state cases ever be heard by Supreme Court?

Yes. Only rarely, when the case involves an interpretation or application of Consitution.

❓Is SCOTUS more powerful than State Supreme Court?



To Conclude...

The court is a deciding factor on how our legal system is shaped today; it ensures the fairness of the trials, strives to the greatest extent — achieve justice, and protects the community.

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