What is a Lower Court?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A court system is the full array of courts established in a country or nation. It is generally a hierarchical system, having several levels, at the highest of which is the supreme court of the land, which may in fact have the words supreme court in its name. A lower court is not only farther down in the hierarchy, but bears specific, designated relationships to courts that are above it. These courts that figure low in the hierarchy may be referred to as “lower” courts or “inferior” courts, or similar terms, depending on the country.

In the United States, decisions of lower courts are subject to appellate review by the United States Supreme Court.
In the United States, decisions of lower courts are subject to appellate review by the United States Supreme Court.

While the highest court of a country operates at the national level, a lower court operates on a more local level, the exact domain depending on the system. In any system in which there are trial courts and courts of appeal, when speaking from the perspective of the court of appeals, any trial court is a lower court.

Lower courts deliver judgments that can be overturned in higher courts.
Lower courts deliver judgments that can be overturned in higher courts.

In the United States, and some other places, the term lower court has an additional meaning. In many states, there are multiple levels of both trial courts and appellate courts. This means that within the trial courts in a particular state that has this division, there is a lower court and a superior court. Depending on the state, the higher trial court may have some degree of review of the lower trial court.

Additionally, within the appellate courts, there may be a lower and a higher court. In cases in which there are multiple levels of trial courts and or appellate courts, each type of court may have both levels. In this case, the term lower court refers to a court of the same type as the court that is being used as a point of reference.

In Canada, the equivalent of the US trial court is most often the provincial or territory court. It is the lower or inferior court. Similar to the case described above, it may be that the superior court of the province or territory has the ability to hear appeals, or appeals may be directed to the Court of Appeal.

The lower court of the trial courts is usually limited to hearing minor cases. Serious offenses are heard at the superior trial court. The authority of appellate courts varies depending on the country and the jurisdiction. Their authority determines their relationship to the lower court and the decision made there, as well as what sorts of appeals they may hear.

Lower courts are usually limited to hearing minor cases, with serious offenses tried in higher courts.
Lower courts are usually limited to hearing minor cases, with serious offenses tried in higher courts.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - I agree. I always think it is interesting to read and learn about how other countries do things. Unfortunately, a lot, if not all, of the classes Americans take in school completely ignore how the governments of other countries function. I think if more politicians started looking at how other countries have solved their problems, there might be more ideas being thrown around that would be effective.

As far as the foreign court systems go, I am even less familiar with them. I would assume most places settled by Europeans would have a system similar to ours with different tiers and cases starting at the bottom and going up.

I would definitely be interested to hear how Middle Eastern and East Asian countries handle their court cases if anyone has any knowledge of this.


The thing I have always thought most interesting about the court system in the United States is that the federal courts lower than the Supreme Court are established by the fact that the Supreme Court can't handle all the cases. The Constitution actually says very little about how the court system should be set up. All it really considers is that there should be a Chief Justice and that courts can be established as needed.

Since the Constitution doesn't say much about the courts, most of the customs were borrowed from the British courts. There are still a lot of unique things that other countries' courts don't do, though.


@Emilski - The names of the courts can be very confusing, especially if you move from one state to another. In my old state, like yours, the lowest courts were called circuit courts. In my new state, they are called district courts. This is made all the more confusing considering the federal system. The lower courts of the judicial branch of the federal governmental are called district courts followed by circuit courts of appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court that someone is tried by depends on the crime. If someone breaks a state or local law such as speeding or various assault situations, they would go to a state trial. If someone breaks a federal law like ignoring the Clean Air Act or any other Act passed by Congress, that case would start out in the U.S. District Court.


I guess I have never really thought a lot about the U.S. court system, but there really are a lot of different levels that have to be dealt with. At first glance it seems like there are almost too many courts, but then again, I am always hearing stories about the courts being too full with cases.

I suppose the one question I have now that I am thinking about this is how do the state and federal courts work together? That is something I always kind of wondered. If I remember correctly from my high school civics class so many years ago, my state has three levels of the court. There are the circuit courts, appeals courts, and the state Supreme Court. I don't know a lot of people who have ever had to go to court, but they've always just gone to the local courthouse for the county. I would assume that is the circuit court. How do people end up going to federal court, then?

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