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A supreme court (also called a court of last resort or instance, court of final appeal or high court) is in some jurisdictions the highest judicial body within that jurisdiction's court system, whose rulings are not subject to further review by another court. The designations for such courts differ among jurisdictions. Courts of last resort typically function primarily as appellate courts, hearing appeals from the lower trial courts or intermediate-level appellate courts. Many countries in fact have multiple "supreme courts," with each being the court of last resort for a particular geographical region or on a particular area of law. The United Statesmarker, having a federal system of government, has a single Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker, but each U.S. state furthermore has its own high court over which the U.S. Supreme Court only has jurisdiction on issues of federal law. Other jurisdictions follow the Austrianmarker model of a separate constitutional court (first developed in the Czechoslovak constitution and Austrian Constitution of 1920). Furthermore, in e.g. Finlandmarker, Swedenmarker, Czech Republicmarker, Poland, and Taiwanmarker, there is a separate Supreme Administrative Court whose decisions are final and whose jurisdiction does not overlap with the Supreme Court. The U.S. states of Texasmarker and Oklahomamarker also divide subject matter jurisdiction among two separate courts of last resort, with one hearing criminal cases and the other civil cases.

Many higher courts create through their decisions case law applicable within their respective jurisdictions or interpret codal provisions in civil law countries to maintain a uniform interpretation:

  • Most civil law nations do not have the official doctrine of stare decisis and hence the rulings of the supreme court are usually not binding outside the immediate case in question. However, in practice, the precedent, or jurisprudence constante, expressed by those courts is often extremely strong.


Common law jurisdictions

Australia

In Australia, the High Court of Australiamarker became the court of last resort with the passing of the Australia Act in 1986. This act abolished the last rights of appeal to the Privy Councilmarker. Each state and territory has its own Supreme Court, which is the highest court in that state/territory. This leads to some confusion, among those from other jurisdictions as the term "supreme court" seems to refer to the court of last resort. The reason that the High Court of Australiamarker is not named the "supreme court" is purely historical. Before the federation of the Australian colonies as states of Australia (in 1901), each colony had its own independent judicial system with a supreme court as the highest court physically within the colony (with a right of appeal to the Privy Councilmarker). On federation, the constitution provided for the establishment of a federal "supreme court", to be named the "High Court" which could hear appeals from the state Supreme Courts. With the exception of The Australian Capital Territory, each state's Supreme Court are divided into two divisions: The Trial Division and The Court of Appeals. Appeals from The ACT Supreme Court are heard in the High Court of Australia. The current Chief Justice of the High Court is Robert French.

Bangladesh

The Supreme Court of Bangladesh is created by the provisions of the Constitution of Bangladesh, 1972. There are two Divisions of the Supreme Court, i.e. (a) Appellate Division and (b) High Court Division. Appellate Division is the highest Court of Appeal and usually does not exercise the powers of a Court of first instance. Whereas, the High Court Division is a Court of first instance in company and admiralty matters. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh is the protector and guardian of Bangladesh Constitution.

You can access the judgments of Appellate Division of Bangladesh Supreme Court in Chancery Law Chronicles - First Bangladesh Online Case Law Database [281349].

Canada

In Canada, the Supreme Court of Canadamarker was established in 1875 but only became the highest court in the country in 1949 when the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker was abolished. This court hears appeals of decisions rendered by appellate courts from each of the country's provinces and territories, as well as appeals of judgements created by the Federal Court of Appeal. The court's decisions are final and binding on the federal courts and the courts from all provinces and territories.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, Supreme Court of Hong Kong (now known as High Courtmarker) was the final court of appeal during its colonial times which ended with transfer of sovereignty in 1997. The final adjudication power, as in any other British Colonies, rested with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker (JCPC) in London, United Kingdom. Now the power of final adjudication is vested in the Court of Final Appeal created in 1997. Under the Basic Law, its constitution, the territory remains a common law jurisdiction. Consequently, judges from other common law jurisdictions (including England and Wales) can be recruited and continue to serve in the judiciary according to Article 92 of the Basic Law. On the other hand, the power of interpretation of the Basic Law itself, being a national law, is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) in Beijing (without retroactive effect), and the courts are authorised to interpret the Basic Law when trying cases, in accordance with Article 158 of the Basic Law. This arrangement became controversial in light of the right of abode issue in 1999, raising concerns for judicial independence.

India

In India, the Supreme Court of Indiamarker was created on January 28, 1950 after the adoption of the Constitution. The Supreme Court is a constitutional authority independent from political interference. All judgments are binding across all states of India, the exception being the state of Jammu and Kashmirmarker where The Indian penal code is applicable, however, it was known in this state as the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC). The court rulings take precedence over state High Courts. In extremely rare cases such as capital punishment, the decision may be passed on to the President of India for clemency petitions.

Ireland

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Republic of Irelandmarker. It has authority to interpret the constitution, and strike down laws and activities of the state that it finds to be unconstitutional. It is also the highest authority in the interpretation of the law. Constitutionally it must have authority to interpret the constitution but its further appellate jurisdiction from lower courts is defined by law. The Irish Supreme Court consists of its presiding member, the Chief Justice, and seven other judges. Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President in accordance with the binding advice of the Government. The Supreme Court currently sits in the Four Courtsmarker in Dublinmarker.

Israel

Israel's Supreme Courtmarker (Hebrew: בית המשפט העליון, Beit haMishpat ha'Elyon) is at the head of the court system in the State of Israelmarker. It is the highest judicial instance. The Supreme Court sits in Jerusalemmarker. The area of its jurisdiction is the entire State. A ruling of the Supreme Court is binding upon every court, other than the Supreme Court itself. The Israeli supreme court is both an appellate court and the high court of justice. As an appellate court, the Supreme Court considers cases on appeal (both criminal and civil) on judgments and other decisions of the District Courts. It also considers appeals on judicial and quasi-judicial decisions of various kinds, such as matters relating to the legality of Knesset elections and disciplinary rulings of the Bar Association. As the High Court of Justice (Hebrew: Beit Mishpat Gavoha Le'Zedek בית משפט גבוה לצדק; also known by its initials as Bagatz בג"ץ), the Supreme Court rules as a court of first instance, primarily in matters regarding the legality of decisions of State authorities: Government decisions, those of local authorities and other bodies and persons performing public functions under the law, and direct challenges to the constitutionality of laws enacted by the Knesset. The court has broad discretionary authority to rule on matters in which it considers it necessary to grant relief in the interests of justice, and which are not within the jurisdiction of another court or tribunal. The High Court of Justice grants relief through orders such as injunction, mandamus and Habeas Corpus, as well as through declaratory judgments. The Supreme Court can also sit at a 「further hearing」 on its own judgment. In a matter on which the Supreme Court has ruled - whether as a court of appeals or as the High Court of Justice - with a panel of three or more justices, it may rule at a further hearing with a panel of a larger number of justices. A further hearing may be held if the Supreme Court makes a ruling inconsistent with a previous ruling or if the Court deems that the importance, difficulty or novelty of a ruling of the Court justifies such hearing. The Supreme Court also holds the unique power of being able to order "trial de novo," (a retrial).

New Zealand

In New Zealandmarker, the right of appeal to the Privy Councilmarker has recently been abolished following the passing of the Supreme Court Act (2003). The new Supreme Court of New Zealand was officially established at the beginning of 2004, although it did not come into operation until July. In September 2006, a new design for a dedicated Supreme Court building was announced, with completion set for 2009. The High Court of New Zealandmarker was until 1980 known as the Supreme Court.

Pakistan

The Supreme Courtmarker has been the apex court for Pakistanmarker since the declaration of the republic in 1956 (previously the Privy Council had that function). The Supreme Court has the final say on matters of constitutional law, federal law or on matters of mixed federal and provincial competence. It can hear appeals on matters of provincial competence only if a matter of a constitutional nature is raised.

With respect to Pakistan's territories (i.e FATA, Azad Kashmir, Northern Areas and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT)) the Supreme Court's jurisdiction is rather limited and varies from territory to territory; it can hear appeals only of a constitutional nature from FATA and Northern Areas, while ICT generally functions the same as provinces. Azad Kashmir has its own courts system and the constitution of Pakistan does not apply to it as such; appeals from Azad Kashmir relate to its relationship with Pakistan.

The provinces have their own courts system, with the High Court as the apex court, except insofar as where an appeal can go to the Supreme Court as mentioned above.

United Kingdom

A Supreme Court of the United Kingdommarker was established with effect from 1 October 2009 by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and assumed the judicial functions of the House of Lordsmarker, which include final appellate jurisdiction in civil cases throughout the UK, and in criminal cases in England and Wales. In the United Kingdom, there are separate legislatures with limited devolved powers over Walesmarker, Northern Irelandmarker and Scotlandmarker: devolution issues under the Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act and Northern Ireland Act were transferred from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker to the new Supreme Court.

In respect of Community Law the Supreme Court is subject to the decisions of the European Court of Justice. Since there can be no appeal from the Supreme Court, there is an interlocutory procedure by which the Supreme Court may refer to the European Court questions of European law which arise in cases before it, and obtain a definitive ruling before the Supreme Court gives its judgment.

The Supreme Court shares its members and accommodation at the Middlesex Guildhall with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker which hears final appeals from certain smaller Commonwealth realms and Colonies, admiralty cases, and certain appeals from the ecclesiastical courts and statutory private jurisdictions, such as professional and academic bodies.

(The Constitutional Reform Act renamed the rarely cited Supreme Court of Judicature for England and Wales as the Senior Courts of England and Wales).

United States

In the United States, the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker, established in 1789, is the highest Federal court in the country, with powers of judicial review first asserted in Calder v. Bull (1798) in Justice Iredell's dissenting opinion. The power was later given binding authority by Justice Marshall in Marbury v. Madison (1803). There are currently nine seats on the US Supreme Court.

Each U.S. state has a state supreme court, which is the highest authority interpreting that state's law and administering that state's judiciary. Two states, Oklahomamarker and Texasmarker, each have two separate highest courts that respectively specialize in criminal cases and civil cases. Delawaremarker also has two separate supreme courts - one to hear cases at law and another, the Court of Chancery, to hear cases in equity.

The titles of state supreme court vary, which can cause confusion between jurisdictions because one state may use a name for its highest court that another uses for a lower court. In New Yorkmarker, Marylandmarker, and the District of Columbiamarker the highest court is called the Court of Appeals, a name used by many states for their intermediate appellate courts. Further, trial courts of general jurisdiction in New York are called the Supreme Court, and the intermediate appellate court is called the Supreme Court, Appellate Division. In West Virginiamarker, the highest court of the state is the Supreme Court of Appealsmarker. In Mainemarker and Massachusettsmarker the highest court is styled the "Supreme Judicial Court"; the latter is the oldest appellate court of continuous operation in the Western hemisphere.

Civil law jurisdictions

The Roman law and the Corpus Juris Civilis are generally held to be the historical model for civil law. From the late 18th century onwards, civil law jurisdictions began to codify their laws, most of all in civil codes.

Austria

In Austria, the Austrian Constitution of 1920 (based on a draft by Hans Kelsen) introduced judicial review of legislative acts for their constitutionality. This function is performed by the Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof), which is also charged with the review of administrative acts on whether they violate constitutionally guaranteed rights.Other than that, administrative acts are reviewed by the Administrative Court (Verwaltungsgerichtshof). The Supreme Court (Oberster Gerichtshof), stands at the top of Austria's system of "ordinary courts" (ordentliche Gerichte) as the final instance in issues of private law and criminal law.

Brazil

In Brazil, the Supreme Federal Tribunalmarker is the highest court. It is both the constitutional court and the court of last resort in Brazilian law. It only reviews cases that may be unconstitutional. It also judges, in original jurisdiction, cases involving members of congressmarker, senators, ministers of state, members of the Court and the President and Vice-President of the Republic. The Superior Justice Tribunal grants writs of certiorari for civil law and criminal law cases. The Superior Labour Tribunal reviews cases involving labour law. The Superior Electoral Tribunal is the court of last resort of electoral law, and also oversees general elections. The Superior Military Tribunal is the highest court in matters of military law.

Republic of China

In the Republic of Chinamarker, which now controls Taiwan, there are three different courts of last resort:
  • Supreme Court of Republic of China (中華民國最高法院): civil and criminal cases.
  • Supreme Executive Court of Republic of China (中華民國最高行政法院): executive cases.
  • Council of Grand Justices (大法官會議): interpretation of the Constitution, interpretation of laws and regulations, dissolution of political parties in violation of the Constitution, trial of impeachments against the President or Vice-President.


The Council of Grand Justices, consisting of 15 justices and mainly dealing with constitutional issues, is the counterpart of constitutional courts in some countries.

All three courts are directly under the Judicial Yuan, whose president also serves as Chief Justice in the Council of Grand Justices.

Croatia

In Croatia, the supreme jurisdiction is given to the Supreme Courtmarker, which secures a uniform application of laws. The Constitutional Court exists to verify constitutionality of laws and regulations, as well as decide on individual complaints on decisions on governmental bodies. It also decides on jurisdictional disputes between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

Denmark

In Denmark, all ordinary courts have original jurisdiction to hear all types of cases, including cases of a constitutional or administrative nature. As a result, there exists no special constitutional court, and therefore final jurisdiction is vested with the Danish Supreme Court (Højesteret).

France

In France, supreme appellate jurisdiction is divided among 5 judicial bodies:

Germany

In Germany, there is no single supreme court. Final interpretation of the German Constitution, the Grundgesetz, is the task of the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court of Germanymarker). With civil and criminal cases, the highest court in a hierarchy of appellate courts is the Bundesgerichtshofmarker. The other branches of the German judicial branch each have their own appellate systems and highest courts for social (Bundessozialgericht), labor (Bundesarbeitsgerichtmarker), taxes (Bundesfinanzhofmarker) and administrative cases (Bundesverwaltungsgerichtmarker). The so-called Gemeinsamer Senat der Obersten Gerichtshöfe (Common Senate of the Federal Supreme Courts), is no supreme court in itself, but an ad-hoc body that convenes and acts only in the case that one supreme court intends to diverge from another supreme court's legal opinion. As the courts have well-defined areas of responsibility, this situation rarely arises, and the Common Senate only gathers rather rarely and only on matters which are mostly definitory.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the Hoge Raad der Nederlanden is the Supreme Court. Its decisions, known as "arresten", are absolutely final. The court is banned from testing legislation against the constitution, pursuant to the principle of the sovereignty of the States-General; the court can, however, test legislation against treaties, which amounts to some form of de facto constitutional review. Also, the ordinary courts in The Netherlands, including the Hoge Raad, do not deal with administrative law, which is dealt with in separate administrative courts, the highest of which is the Council of State (Raad van State)

Italy

In Italy, the Italian court of last resort for most disputes is called Corte di Cassazione. There is a separate constitutional court, the Corte costituzionale and also a parliamentary court of last resort.

Japan

In Japan, the Supreme Court of Japanmarker is called (Saikō-Saibansho; called 最高裁 Saikō-Sai for short), located in Chiyoda, Tokyo is the highest court in Japan. It has ultimate judicial authority within Japan to interpret the Constitution and decide questions of national law (including local bylaws). It has the power of judicial review (i.e., it can declare Acts of Diet and Local Assembly, and administrative actions, unconstitutional).

Luxembourg

In Luxembourg, challenges on the conformity of the law to the Constitution are brought before the Cour Constitutionnelle (Constitutional Court). — The most used and common procedure to present these challenges is by way of the "question préjudicielle" (prejudicial question).

The Court of last resort for civil and criminal proceedings is the "Cour de Cassation".

For administrative proceedings the highest court is the "Cour Administrative" (Administrative Court).

The Philippines

While the Philippines is generally considered a civil law nation, its Supreme Court is heavily modelled after the American Supreme Courtmarker. This can be attributed to the fact that the Philippines was colonized by both Spainmarker and the United Statesmarker, and the system of laws of both nations strongly influenced the development of Philippine laws and jurisprudence. Even as the body of Philippine laws remain mostly codified, the Philippine Civil Code expressly recognizes that decisions of the Supreme Court "form part of the law of the land", belonging to the same class as statutes. The 1987 Philippine Constitution also explicitly grants to the Supreme Court the power of judicial review over laws and executive actions. The Supreme Court is composed of 1 Chief Justice and 14 Associate Justices. The court sits either en banc or in divisions, depending on the nature of the case to be decided.

Scotland

In Scotland, the College of Justice, the High Court of Justiciarymarker and the Court of Sessionmarker are collectively known as the Supreme Courts, with the High Court being the supreme criminal court, with no appeal to the House of Lords, and the Court of Session the superior civil court. There remains the possibility of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on matters of civil cases, as well as appeals under the Scotland Act 1998 to the same body. This replaced the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as of the 1st October 2009.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka was created in 1972 after the adoption of a new Constitution. the Supreme Court is the highest and final superior court of record and is empowered to exercise its powers, subject to the provisions of the Constitution. The court rulings take precedence over all lower Courts. The Sri Lanka judicial system is complex blend of both common-law and civil-law. In some cases such as capital punishment, the decision may be passed on to the President of the Republic for clemency petitions.

South Africa

In South Africa, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) was created in 1994 and replaced the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa as the highest court of appeal in non-constitutional matters. The SCA is subordinate to the Constitutional Courtmarker, which is the highest court in matters involving the interpretation of the Constitution.

Sweden

In Sweden, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court respectively function as the highest courts of the land. The Supreme Administrative Court considers cases concerning disputes between individuals and administrative organs, as well as disputes among administrative organs, while the Supreme Court considers all other cases. The judges are appointed by the Government. In most cases, the Supreme Courts will only grant leave to appeal a case [prövningstillstånd) if the case involves setting a precedent in the interpretation of the law. Exceptions are issues where the Supreme Court is the court of first instance. Such cases include an application for a retrial of a criminal case in the light of new evidence, and prosecutions made against an incumbent minister of the Government for severe neglection of duty. If a lower court has to try a case which involves a question where there is no settled interpretation of the law, it can also refer the question to the relevant Supreme Court for an answer.

Switzerland

In Switzerland, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland is the final court of appeals. Due to Switzerland's system of direct democracy, it has no authority to review the constitutionality of federal statutes, but the people can strike down a proposed law by referendum. According to settled case law, however, the Court is authorised to review the compliance of all Swiss law with certain categories of international law, especially the European Convention of Human Rights.

Other civil law jurisdictions



Soviet-model jurisdictions

In most nations with constitutions modelled after the Soviet Unionmarker, the legislature was given the power of being the court of last resort. However, because of the lack of a strong legal system, this power was only nominal. In People's Republic of China, the final power to interpret the law is vested in Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China. This power includes the power to interpret the basic laws of Hong Kongmarker and Macaumarker, the constitutional documents of the two special administrative regions which are common law and Portuguese-based legal system jurisdictions respectively. This power is a legislative power and not a judicial one in that an interpretation by the NPCSC does not affect cases which have already been decided.

See also




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