What is the Judicial System?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 01 February 2020
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The judicial system is a network of courts that provide interpretation and enforcement of the law, depending on the level at which a court operates. People accused of crimes enter the judicial system for trials where evidence is presented and reviewed, and they can choose to appeal the results of the trial to a higher court if they are not satisfied with the outcome. The judicial system can also be used to mount direct challenges to specific laws. National judicial systems are arranged in a variety of ways, and the structure of the courts is usually built into a founding document like a constitution.

Most countries have a high court. The high court is the highest legal authority in a country, with no opportunities for appeal beyond this court. A network of lesser courts across the nation provides a variety of legal services. These courts are arranged in tiers to provide opportunities for trials and appeals at several levels. The judicial system may also be broken into civil and criminal courts for handling different kinds of legal matters.


One function of the judicial system is to apply the law. When someone stands accused of a crime, the court supervises a trial, making sure the trial is fair and reasonable. If the person is found guilty, the court can hand down a sentence appropriate to the crime. Mitigating factors may be considered, depending on the nation and the type of case. In some regions, there are strict sentencing laws and in others, judges may be allowed more discretion. Juries can also offer sentences in some cases.

Another function is the interpretation of the law. Over time, social attitudes change and the interpretation of the law may shift in response. The judicial branch of a government resists short-term fads and ideologies, but will shift in the long term as it hears cases and is asked to interpret the law. In higher courts, the law can be actively challenged and judges may strike down laws or issue groundbreaking opinions that change the way people apply the law.

Judges working in the judicial system may be elected or appointed. Usually, their terms are long, and in some cases, judges may be allowed to serve until they want to step down. Many judges have backgrounds as attorneys and are familiar with representing cases in court when they take up positions in the judiciary. The judicial system also employs people like bailiffs for security and clerks to record activity in court.


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