General jurisdiction means that a court has the authority to hear a variety of different cases. A general jurisdiction court is separate and distinct from a limited jurisdiction court, such as a small claims court. The vast majority of cases in most countries are brought in general jurisdiction courts.
In traditional English court systems, there were two courts: a court of equity and a court of common law. When the United States established its legal system based on English principles, this distinction essentially collapsed. The same collapse occurred in England, and the UK — like most countries in the world — no longer organizes its court system into distinct common law and court of equity branches.
Instead, courts in most countries today are organized as either limited jurisdiction or general jurisdiction courts. In the United States, for example, there are a few select courts that are limited jurisdiction courts. Bankruptcy court, for example, is a limited jurisdiction court since it can hear only bankruptcy cases; likewise, family law courts can hear only family law cases, and small claims courts can only hear cases involving damages up to a certain monetary amount.
Courts that do not have limitations on the types of cases they can hear are said to have general jurisdiction. This means that a general jurisdiction court can hear a tort case, a contracts law case, or any number of other related cases. The court is not limited, as long as it has personal jurisdiction over the parties. Personal jurisdiction means that it is fair for the court to impose its rule on the individuals brought before it.
In the United States, federal courts are more limited than state courts. This means that most federal courts are not courts of general jurisdiction. Federal courts can hear cases arising out of federal laws, such as the Constitution or federal statutes, or cases in which diversity jurisdiction exists, such as cases where the individuals having a dispute are from different states and in which the dispute is over a certain amount of money.
State courts, on the other hand, can hear a number of different cases. Unless the federal courts or another court has exclusive jurisdiction, such as in the case of bankruptcy and taxes, the state court can hear the case. Most litigation in the United States thus takes place in these state courts since they have the general authority to rule over a wide variety of different legal questions.