The judiciary is the branch of government that deals with interpretation of a nation’s laws, resolution of legal conflicts, and judgments for violations of the law. The judiciary, also known as the judicial system, is composed of judges and courts. The judicial system is deliberately kept separate from the nation’s legislative body, such as a parliament or congress, which creates or abolishes the nation’s laws as part of the political process. Attorneys are specialists who study the law in order to help clients navigate the judicial system.
Legal systems of various kinds have existed since the dawn of civilization. Precedents of the modern judicial system include ancient Greek and Roman law and the lawspeakers of medieval Scandinavia. English common law established by the Magna Carta is the most direct ancestor of many current legal systems. France’s Napoleonic Code was also influential in replacing local customs with a set system of laws and courts. By the 18th century, many countries around the world had developed some form of a judiciary.
In many nations, the law is established by a constitution or similar document created when the nation was founded. The legislative body then creates further laws that are intended to carry the spirit of the constitution into specific situations. It is the responsibility of the judiciary to determine if these new laws are, in fact, true to the intent of the constitution. For this reason, judges must be extremely well versed in the laws of the nation. Most begin their careers as attorneys before moving on to the judicial bench.
The judiciary is best known for its administration of criminal court cases. Anyone caught violating a law must eventually face a judge, who will determine whether the violation occurred, the severity of the offense, and the penalty. Judges are aided in this process by their understanding of the law, their own interpretation of its meaning, and in some cases by a jury or a panel of fellow judges. The majority of court cases, however, involve civil law, such as trademark or copyright violations, bankruptcy, or individual lawsuits. In the United States, 80 percent of court cases involve civil law, while only 20 percent are criminal cases.
In the U.S. and many other nations, the judiciary contains a hierarchy, with judges in higher courts possessing the authority to change or void prior decisions made by judges from lower courts. This establishes a system of appeals. The loser of a case in a lower court may appeal to a higher court for a reversal of the verdict. As long as they can afford the legal expenses, parties can continue to appeal until they reach the highest court, known as the Supreme Court in the U.S. and the High Court in Australia and other English-speaking nations. The judgments of this highest court can determine not only the final outcome of the case, but in some cases can alter the interpretation of the law itself.