what is court

What is court?

A court is an institution that the government sets up to settle disputes through a legal process. Courts resolve civil disputes between individuals, and they determine if someone accused of a crime is guilty or not. A judge or group of judges preside over the court proceedings.

Courts are a key part of the judicial branch of government. Their role is to interpret and apply the law.

Types of courts

There are several types of courts that handle different kinds of cases.

Criminal courts

Criminal courts hear cases where someone has been accused of breaking the law. The charges can be at the federal, state, or local level. Criminal courts determine if the defendant is guilty and sentence convicted individuals.

Civil courts

Civil courts preside over disputes between people or organizations. These may involve issues like contracts, personal injuries, or property disputes. Civil courts can award monetary damages to provide relief for wrongs committed.

Appellate courts

Appellate courts hear appeals from lower courts. They review the procedures and the application of the law to determine if mistakes were made. Appellate courts can uphold or overturn a lower court’s rulings.

Key players in court

There are many important roles filled by people in the court system.


The judge oversees court proceedings and ensures legal rules are followed. The judge decides what evidence can be admitted and interprets points of law. In trials without juries, the judge determines guilt or innocence.

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Juries are groups of citizens who hear evidence presented at trial. Criminal defendants and parties to civil suits may opt for a jury to decide their case. The jury determines factual issues related to the charges or litigation.


Lawyers represent their clients before and during court proceedings. They investigate claims, interview witnesses, and conduct research to build the strongest case. Lawyers make opening and closing statements and examine witnesses at trials.

Plaintiffs and defendants

Plaintiffs initiate civil suits, while prosecutors bring criminal charges. Defendants are those responding to civil complaints or criminal charges. Both parties work with their lawyers to assemble evidence and craft arguments to present before the court.


Witnesses provide testimony to the court about what they witnessed. This evidence can support or weaken claims made in a civil suit or criminal prosecution. Witnesses are questioned by lawyers and cross-examined by the opposing side.

Court reporter

Court reporters create word-for-word transcriptions of trials and hearings through stenography or audio recordings. These transcripts become the official legal record of court proceedings.


Bailiffs maintain order in the courtroom. They escort defendants in and out of the room and look after jurors during a trial. Bailiffs announce the judge’s entrance and exit and administer oaths to witnesses.

Courtroom layout

Courtrooms are designed to facilitate the legal process.

Judge’s bench

The judge is positioned at a desk or elevated platform called the bench. This allows the judge to preside over the proceedings and interact with trial participants.

H3 Witness stand

Witnesses take the stand when testifying. The stand places witnesses facing toward the judge and visible to jurors and lawyers.

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Jury box

This is the area occupied by the jury during a trial. It keeps the jurors together and facing the judge, lawyers, and witnesses throughout the case.

Counsel tables

Tables for the defense and prosecution/plaintiff teams are positioned facing the judge. Lawyers sit and organize documents here during proceedings.


Public seating is located behind the bar that separates the front courtroom from the gallery. Interested observers can watch the proceedings from these rows.

Court procedures

There is an orderly process courts follow to adjudicate cases:

Voir dire

Jury selection begins with voir dire questioning. Lawyers ask potential jurors questions to determine their suitability and weed out any biases.

Opening statements

Each side outlines key points of their case and what evidence will show in these beginning remarks. Opening statements preview arguments to come.

Presenting evidence

Witnesses take the stand to testify and physical evidence is submitted during this phase. Rules govern the introduction of materials into the official court record.

Closing arguments

Lawyers summarize their central positions and important evidence for the court after the evidentiary phase concludes. This is a final attempt to persuade a judge or jury.

Jury deliberation

For jury trials, jurors enter closed-door discussions to decide if criminal charges or civil claims have been proven. Verdicts must be unanimous in criminal matters.


The jury’s decision is announced in court when deliberations conclude. In civil cases, findings can be decided by a majority vote.


If a guilty verdict is returned in a criminal case, the judge determines the sentence within statutory guidelines. This may involve prison, probation, fines, or other penalties.

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Purposes and principles of courts

Courts exist to fulfill certain important purposes:

Dispute resolution

Courts offer a peaceful means for settling private disputes between parties. The adversarial system allows both sides to argue their positions fully before an impartial judge or jury.

Checks on government power

Courts can strike down laws and government actions that exceed constitutional authority. Judicial review ensures the other branches operate within their legal limits.

Justice and fairness

Courts provide a venue where parties—rich or poor—can obtain just outcomes based on the merits of facts and law. Fair application of legal rules prevents arbitrary actions.


Courts are vital institutions where evidence and legal arguments are weighed in an impartial environment. They employ established procedures designed to maximize fairness and produce just results. While courts have their critics, they remain essential for upholding the rule of law. When utilized properly, courts can resolve conflicts, remedy harms done, uphold rights, and check abuses of power responsibly and equitably.


What are the main differences between civil and criminal courts?

Civil courts handle private disputes between two parties and aim to compensate victims, while criminal courts determine if laws were broken and punish guilty offenders. Burdens of proof also differ, with criminal cases requiring evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

What educational background do judges need? Judges typically hold law degrees and have experience practicing law or serving as lawyers in public office. Federal judges are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate.

Can court proceedings be observed by the public? Most courts allow public observation of trials and hearings with some exceptions. High-profile cases often have many spectators.

Do all cases end with a jury trial? Most civil and criminal cases are settled out of court or resolved by judges. Only a small percentage make it to a jury trial. Parties want to avoid the costs of a full trial if possible.

What happens in appellate courts? Appellate courts do not hear evidence or hold trials. They review the proceedings and legal rulings made by lower courts to check for mistakes.

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