Western European Tribunals

Western European Tribunals

History of Western European Tribunals

Medieval courts were an outgrowth of the tribal courts of the Germanic peoples, among whom the highest judicial authority was that of the popular assemblies that met regularly throughout the year. The tribal judges supervised the proceedings and executed the judgments rendered by the assemblies. During the development of the Germanic tribal organization into territorial states, the primitive tribal courts underwent a corresponding evolution, increasing in number and becoming differentiated. Among the new features of this Teutonic system were a royal court, presided over by the king and modeled on the Roman system of courts; special lower courts under the control of royal officials who were called Grafen, which handled minor matters; and, later, a corps of permanent lay judges, with power to render judgments.

In the 8th century, when the Germanic territorial states were part of the realm of Charlemagne, the Teutonic judicial system experienced a further significant development: the practice, initiated by Charlemagne, of dispatching royal commissioners to examine the functioning of local courts and, when necessary, to supplement the justice they dispensed. In this innovation were the seeds of three later important legal developments: assize courts, circuit courts, and a central legal authority. This innovation was adopted by other feudal monarchs in their struggles with the landed nobility, who controlled the manorial, or seignorial, courts.

When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they imposed the Carolingian judicial system on the Anglo-Saxons. In the long struggle between king and landed nobility that ensued, one of the principal weapons of the Crown was the Curia Regis (king’s court). Read about the Early English Court System

Later Developments in the British System

Administrative and structural changes in important but secondary features, such as those wrought by the Judicature Act of 1873, have been made. See more about the History of English Court System here


In France, the development of the judicial system after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire was similar to that in England: Both involved the vesting of central legal authority in the Crown after a protracted struggle with feudal manorial courts. The essential features of the judicial system now in effect in France were established after the French Revolution of 1789 by the Code Napoléon. This system includes lower courts of wide jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeal, a court to resolve jurisdictional conflicts among courts, and a supreme appellate tribunal called the Court of Cassation. Many European and Latin American judicial systems are modeled on that of France.

Communist countries

In Communist countries, the judicial system was usually patterned after that of the USSR, which included a hierarchy of courts culminating in a supreme court. In the former Yugoslavia, however, all judges, even those of the highest tribunals, were elected, not appointed.

European Regional Tribunals

This include: European CourtsCourt of First Instance of the European UnionBenelux Court of JusticeCourt of Justice of the European UnionEuropean Court of Human RightsEuropean Free Trade Agreement CourtInternational Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

More Entries about Courts

Early Courts

See Early Courts.

Developments in the British System

See English Court System

Court System in the United States

Court System in that country.

Other World Developments

For France, Islamic world and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries, see Courts in General

See Also

MPEPIL: International courts and tribunals
Unconstitutional Constitutional Courts
List of United Kingdom Court Reports
European Caselaw Databases
Historical Dictionary of International Tribunals
Court Reports
Federalism in the European Union

Contributed By:

William O. Douglas, M.A., LL.B., LL.D. Late Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Courts,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia

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