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A court of common pleas is a court in the United States that handles civil trials at the state level. These courts are in the minority in the U.S., because their function usually is performed by superior courts or trial courts. Courts of common pleas derive their basic structure — and their name — from the English common law system as it was in force when the U.S. was a British colony. The United Kingdom abolished its court of common pleas system during the 1800s, and most U.S. states followed suit about that same time.
As of late 2011, only four U.S. states operated courts of common pleas: Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio and South Carolina. At the time of the original English settlement in the early 1600s, all courts in the U.S. were actually English courts, because the states were considered Crown Colonies. As such, they followed the English court system’s design in both form and function.
England’s court system during colonial times was divided into two main pieces: the King’s Bench and the Common Bench. The King’s Bench heard cases involving the King, usually instances of treason or violation of national laws. By contrast, the Common Bench, which was also known as the Court of Common Pleas, dealt with disputes between citizens. The national government was not a party to these disputes and had no vested interest in the outcome.
The United Kingdom court system no longer supports courts of common pleas. These courts were merged into the King’s Bench in 1873. There still is a difference between claims brought between citizens and claims brought by the government against a citizen or private entity, but there are not separate court systems for each — just different methods of hearing the claims. Civil cases usually are heard in magistrate’s courts, which serve as the bottom rung on a ladder of ascension through the court system.
Most U.S. states made a similar change around the same time. Courts of common pleas generally became superior courts or trial courts and were absorbed into the larger state courts systems as they developed. Like the U.K. magistrate’s courts, these courts now serve as courts of primary jurisdiction for a range of civil matters, such as family disputes and business conflicts. Trial judges will hear the disputes then issue rulings that can be appealed all the way to state supreme courts and sometimes even to the highest U.S. court, the Supreme Court. In this way, the trial courts are connected to the larger national court system, albeit at a lower, more introductory level.
The four states that maintain a court of common pleas do so more in name than in actual function. These courts do not work like an early English court of common pleas would have, in the sense that they are not divorced from the state’s other judicial branches. They maintain their name largely out of tradition, and they function, in most cases, just as a superior or trial court would. United States law permits different states to order their courts independently, but all of them follow a similar pattern of jurisdiction and appeals.