At its most basic level, a circuit court is a group of courts that works together as a regional justice system. These courts typically try cases and hear appeals from within the region. The court systems vary in scope and purpose, from region to region and from country to country. For example, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) have had circuit courts, but each served a different function to their country’s judiciary.
Historically, a circuit court was a series of court sessions held in different parts of a region at different times. Before the advent of modern transportation and communications, many areas had no local courts where legal matters could be heard, so judges and lawyers often traveled from place to place to hear cases and dispense justice. They typically toured a defined circuit.
This circuit court system was originally a way to bring the laws of the nation into localities where there was no access to judges or lawyers. For the most part, this historical definition is no longer applicable, as circuits have been replaced by permanent court systems in most regions. Several countries maintain the title of circuit court for some part of their judicial systems.
In the US, the term 'circuit court' appears at both the federal and the state level. Congress has divided the country into judicial circuits that typically handle both original cases, or first instance, and appeals from within their region. There are eleven numbered circuits and the District of Columbia (DC) Circuit, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which typically decides appeals regarding patent law.
Many states within the US have their own circuit court system. Each circuit determines the level of jurisdiction its courts will have, but most are trial courts that handle a variety of cases. Most state circuits are divided into district courts, and some divide even further to include separate court systems for different categories of law. For instance, many circuits have separate family courts, drug courts, and small claims courts.
In the UK, the term 'circuit court' is still unofficially used to refer to seven regional courts established in 2005 by Her Majesty’s Court Service (HMCS). Before 2005, these region courts were called circuit courts, and they were presided over by a circuit judge. The region courts have original jurisdiction over cases from their region, but not typically over appeals cases. HMCS still appoints circuit judges to each region.