The Courts, Part 1: An Overview of Courts and Legal Disputes

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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An Overview of Courts and Legal Disputes

This document tells you the following:

  • Why do you need to go to court?
  • What is a court?
  • What is civil law?
  • What is criminal law?

There are several reasons why, at some point in your life, you may have an experience with a court:

  • You may be called to serve on a jury.
  • You may testify in court about some event that you saw.
  • You might be involved in a divorce-your own or someone else's.
  • You may commit a crime or be accused of committing one.
  • You might be sued for a tort (that is, a wrongful act) as the result of an auto accident.
  • You may sue someone for breaking a contract.
  • You may have to probate a family member's will.
  • You might adopt a child.

This chapter discusses what courts do, the different kinds of courts, and their respective responsibilities. It also examines how courts make law and how laws made by courts are responsive to change.


The judicial system is one part of the government. It is composed of various types of courts and is the branch of government responsible for interpreting laws. There are thousands of courts in the United States. Until the new constitution took effect in 1983, the state of Georgia had approximately 2,470 courts. Now, with a somewhat streamlined court system, Georgia has approximately 1,100 courts.

The basic function of all courts is essentially the same: to declare, determine, and (if necessary) enforce people's rights and duties under the law. To enforce what they decide, the courts can impose consequences on those who do not comply with their decisions. However, there are limits on what cases each court can hear or decide. The four examples that follow illustrate the different kinds of courts and the cases they hear.



When courts are asked to decide legal rights and duties, usually it is to settle a dispute.

However, not all settlements of legal rights and duties involve disputes. When parents go to court to adopt a child, there is no dispute to resolve. The court simply sets out the legal relationship between the adoptive parents and the child. It states their legal rights and duties to each other.

Disputes can concern civil or criminal law. Sometimes they involve both. Disputes not involving crimes are in the realm of civil law. Criminal law concerns acts that are declared crimes by the government. Which law is involved will affect the procedures that must be followed. It will also determine whether the dispute will be tried in civil or criminal court.

When a court does hear a dispute, it is first considered in a trial court. Courts are either trial or appellate courts. Appellate courts review the decisions of trial courts and determine if the law was applied properly. The four cases in the examples will be initiated in trial courts, but it must first be determined whether they will be civil or criminal cases.

Civil Law

In a civil case, the parties use the court system to decide a private argument between them. The party initiating the civil case is called the plaintiff. The party who is sued is called the defendant. The plaintiff files with the proper court a document called a complaint stating that the defendant either:

1. owes the plaintiff some legal obligation, such as money, or

2. has violated some legal right of the plaintiff. An example would be the right not to have one's property damaged, as can happen in an auto accident.

When a civil case is titled, the name of the plaintiff comes first.

Criminal Law

When a crime is committed, it is considered a "wrong" against society. The person accused of the crime is prosecuted by the government. The government's laws establish what crimes are. Therefore, in criminal cases, one party is always a government. Cases titled U.S. v. Jones or Georgia v. Jones, for example, would undoubtedly be criminal cases. 

To initiate most criminal cases, a prosecutor acting on behalf of the government files a charge in the proper court. The charge states that the defendant (that is, the person charged) has committed some act considered to be a crime under the law. If federal laws are violated, the prosecutor working for the federal government will prosecute the case. If state laws are broken, a prosecutor working for the state government will prosecute the case.

Only the state and federal governments can enact criminal laws and prosecute those accused of breaking them. City and county governments can, however, enact ordinances and prosecute any violation of them. Ordinances may regulate activities in places such as city streets or county parks.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase at www.cviog.uga.eduor by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004