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When a lawsuit is filed for the first time, it is filed in — and tried before — a court with the jurisdiction to hear the dispute. This court is known as a court of original jurisdiction, or a court of first instance. A court of original jurisdiction is usually a low-level trial court that has the power and authority to hear testimony, consider all facts, and ultimately issue an opinion and judgment. An opinion issued by a court of original jurisdiction can usually be appealed to a higher court, but most appellate reviews center only on the application of law in a given case. Original jurisdiction courts carry the important burden of assessing and weighing the facts and circumstances of every dispute that comes before them, and of creating an accurate record.
In the European Union, the first level of the court system is called the Court of First Instance of the European Union Communities. This title makes it clear that these courts are courts of original jurisdiction, and that they are the starting place for trials and opinions. Courts in most other places are not so obviously named. Courts of original jurisdiction in the United Kingdom are known as Magistrate’s Courts. In France they are Courts of Common Pleas. In Canada, Australia, and the United States, they are trial courts.
In the United States, the trial court system is broad, with different courts for different types of disputes. There are criminal trial courts and bankruptcy trial courts, family trial courts and civil trial courts. For questions of national law, there is a separate federal district court system. All trial and district courts are courts of original jurisdiction for disputes in their respective areas, and filing a lawsuit for the first time has to happen there.
No matter where they are situated or what they are called, courts of original jurisdiction are the point of entry for a case into the court system. Courts of original jurisdiction have the power to hear the case and to issue a binding judgment. Many disputes are completely resolved after this judgment comes down. Parties usually have the right to appeal the decision of any court of original jurisdiction, however. If this happens, the court’s record and complete file of the case will be passed on to the appellate court.
Most appellate courts do not have original jurisdiction in their own right, which means that they can only hear cases on referral. There are some exceptions to this rule. The High Court of Australia, although functioning as the final appellate court and highest court in the country, can entertain original filings if they pertain to questions on the Australian constitution. The United States Supreme Court can also act as a court of original jurisdiction if the dispute is between states, or between a state and the federal government. It is very rare for either court to exercise its original jurisdiction powers, however.