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What is a Jurisdiction?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 16, 2024
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Jurisdiction, in the legal sense, refers to the boundary of authority. It can be a bit tricky because the type of authority that it refers to depends upon the entity being discussed. When the term is used in connection with the legal system, it refers to the power to deal with a case. Used in connection with a law enforcement agency, it refers to the power to enforce laws.

One of the main functions of a court is to hear and make a decision on cases. This does not, however, give every court the authority to hear every case. When a court lacks this authority, it can be said to lack jurisdiction. There are two types of jurisdiction that can be considered when reviewing the power of a court: personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction.

Personal jurisdiction generally regards territorial authority. This is an area of law that can be complicated and can vary from one case to another. A court generally has no authority over a person who has no connection to the area which that court serves. This means that if one person accuses another of assaulting her in Middlesex County, then the case typically should be handled in Middlesex County. Court officials cannot decide that due to a backlog of cases that they will transfer the matter to Prince Charles County because the courts there have no authority in the matter.

There are some cases where two different courts potentially might have authority. This arises in cases such as those involving divorce where the man and woman live in different states. Depending on the circumstances, either the state in which she lives or the state in which he lives may be able to handle the case.

Subject matter jurisdiction limits the types of cases that some courts can hear. A bankruptcy court, for example, may not hear a criminal murder trial. These courts are created for specific purposes and can only hear matters concerned with bankruptcy.

Most criminal cases are brought to court after an accused person has been in contact with law enforcement officials. These officials also are affected by limited authority. A Middlesex County police officer does not have the authority to enforce laws in Prince Charles County. Offenses committed there are beyond his boundary of authority. Likewise, although a Virginia state trooper has the authority to enforce laws anywhere in the state of Virginia, he does not have the authority to enforce laws in North Carolina.

Any decisions made in a case that is heard by a court without jurisdiction is unenforceable. Cases that result from enforcement by officials without the authority, even when in the appropriate court, also are usually unenforceable. All authorities typically must respect the limits of their power.

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Discussion Comments

By anon143906 — On Jan 18, 2011

Thanks for writing about jurisdiction here. I think universal jurisdiction cannot be applied without relaxing extradition.

By CellMania — On Aug 17, 2010

@bhremr: Universal jurisdiction can be applied to crimes from murder and theft to hijacking and hostage-taking. Over 125 countries use this universal jurisdiction law.

By OceanSwimmer — On Aug 17, 2010

@bhremr: Larry Cox, the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, had this to say about universal jurisdiction:

“Universal jurisdiction is simply the realization that there are crimes which are crimes not against a particular people living in one particular place, but crimes against all of humanity. And so therefore, the jurisdiction is all of humanity, it’s universal.”

By dill1971 — On Aug 17, 2010

@bhremr: Universal jurisdiction is known as the principle that any and every country has an interesting in punishing the perpetrators of grave crimes. It doesn’t matter where the crime was committed. The nationality is also unimportant. Justice is what matters.

There are certain crimes, such as war crimes, torture, crimes against humanity, and extrajudicial executions that are considered to be so serious that they are looked at as a crime against the whole of humanity. All states have the responsibility of bringing justice.

By bhremr — On Mar 02, 2010

what is universal jurisdiction?

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