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What is a Unified Court System?

By Theresa Miles
Updated May 16, 2024
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A unified court system consolidates separately run courts into one court system that is centrally managed. Court unification is typically designed to address problems with the proliferation of courts at the local level that are established by community members to handle violations of local, rather than national, laws. By placing all courts under one umbrella, the court system achieves a level of judicial efficiency and consistency that was impossible under fragmented administration.

Historically, countries with a judiciary based on English common law have established a court system to handle cases under the national laws. Local jurisdictions were left to establish their own systems of handling issues that fell under local community laws. This led to the establishment of specialty courts with limited power, often distinguished by sphere of influence or by subject matter. These types of courts were called municipals courts, magistrate courts, city courts, juvenile courts, domestic relations courts, justices of the peace, or by other names that reflected the local nature of the proceeding.

Local courts were often set up independently from one another, dependent on need and interest. Jurisdictions would often overlap, and legal standards would differ from court to court. Some courts would appoint judges with no formal legal training or rule on a set of facts inconsistently because there was no way to keep track of decisions passed down by other courts.

Early in the 20th century, the idea of a unified court system became a popular issue under court reform, particularly in the U.S. Legal scholars called for an end to the fragmentation of court systems and proposed centralized administration and management. Local and national jurisdictions began to take up the issue through the ballot and the legislature. In the U.S., for instance, states began to consider legislation that would abolish the old system and consolidate trial courts into either a single court or a court for major offenses and another for minor.

The court unification movement has spread to many countries, and remains a hotly contested issue. Local courts are often not eager to give up their power, and local politicians are typically not enthusiastic about losing the ability to use the appointment to a local court as a political favor. Many states in the U.S. have implemented a unified court system, and countries such as Canada have been steadily moving in that direction. Other countries, such as the U.K., have resisted the call for a unified court system that would consolidate the court systems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

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