A common pleas court is a court that has general jurisdiction, meaning that it can hear a variety of criminal and civil cases. Several justice systems use these kinds of courts as intermediate-level courts for their legal systems. Common pleas courts are trial courts and do not have the jurisdiction to hear appeals; people who wish to appeal cases must take their cases to an appeals court that has this legal authority.
Historically, Great Britain used common pleas courts to handle legal disputes between commoners, with other courts handling legal matters relating to the nobility. The concept of a court with general jurisdiction to handle civil and criminal matters on an intermediate level carried over into other legal systems, and courts of common pleas appeared in numerous other nations as well. The precise jurisdiction of such courts varies, depending on how a nation's legal system is structured.
A typical common pleas court can hear all civil and criminal matters, with no ceiling on the types of cases it hears. These courts are used to try people accused of felonies, as well as to handle civil suits where large damages are being requested. In some regions, the court may have limited jurisdiction, with certain big cases being sent to higher courts. These courts usually publish information about the types of cases they can oversee so that people know where to file a case.
Common pleas courts also handle matters like probate, divorce, and similar types of legal matters. General jurisdiction allows the court to oversee a broad assortment of cases. If a common pleas court does not have jurisdiction, it must refer a case to a more appropriate court. General jurisdiction is also periodically subjected to legal challenges in cases where people believe that a judge in a common pleas court overstepped the jurisdictional boundaries.
When lawsuits are filed, attorneys are typically aware of where the case needs to be filed. They are familiar with the court system in a given area and with how cases are handled. Sometimes, attorneys may attempt to push the jurisdictional envelope in the hopes of getting into a specific court and perhaps setting a legal precedent that will be helpful for similar cases in the future. This must be done with care, as attorneys must serve the best interests of their clients and if they knowingly file in the wrong court they can be subject to penalties.