In common law systems, a superior court is a court of general competence which typically has unlimited jurisdiction with regard to civil and criminal legal cases. A superior court is "superior" relative to a court with limited jurisdiction (see lower court), which is restricted to civil cases involving monetary amounts with a specific limit, or criminal cases involving offenses of a less serious nature. A superior court may hear appeals from lower courts (see court of appeal).
Origin of the term "superior court"
The term "superior court" has its origins in the English court system. The royal courts were the highest courts in the country, with what would now be termed supervisory jurisdiction over baronial and local courts. Decisions of those courts could be reviewed by the royal courts, as part of the Crown's role as the ultimate fountain of justice. The royal courts became known as the "superior courts", while lower courts whose decisions could be reviewed by the royal courts became known as "inferior courts". The decisions of the superior courts were not reviewable or appealable, unless an appeal was created by statute.
In particular jurisdictions
England and Wales
The provincial and territorial superior courts of original jurisdiction are courts of general jurisdiction: all legal matters fall within their jurisdiction, unless assigned elsewhere by statute passed by the appropriate legislative authority. Their jurisdiction typically includes civil lawsuits involving contracts, torts, property, and family law. They also have jurisdiction over criminal prosecutions for indictable offences under the Criminal Code of Canada. They also hear civil appeals from decisions of the provincial and territorial "inferior" courts, as well as appeals from those courts in summary conviction matters under the Criminal Code. They also have jurisdiction of judicial review over administrative decisions by provincial or territorial government entities such as labour boards, human rights tribunals and licensing authorities.
The superior courts of appeal hear appeals from the superior courts of original jurisdiction, as well as from the inferior courts and administrative tribunals. The jurisdiction of the superior courts of appeal are entirely statutory. The details of their jurisdiction will vary depending on the laws passed by the federal government and the particular province or territory.
All judges of the provincial and territorial superior courts are appointed by the federal government under the authority of the Constitution Act, 1867. The judges of the Federal Courts are appointed by the federal government under the authority of the Federal Courts Act.
The High Courts are courts of first instance with general jurisdiction; they can hear all cases except those where exclusive jurisdiction is granted by law to another court. Most cases are, however, tried in the magistrates' courts or other lower courts, and appeals from these courts are heard by the High Court.
The Supreme Court of Appeal is solely an appellate court, hearing appeals from the High Courts. The Constitutional Court is primarily an appellate court, hearing appeals on constitutional matters from the Supreme Court of Appeal or in some cases directly from the High Courts. The Constitutional Court also occasionally acts as a court of first instance in certain cases involving the constitutionality of laws and government actions.
In a number of jurisdictions in the United States, the Superior Court is a state trial court of general jurisdiction with power to hear and decide any civil or criminal action which is not specially designated to be heard in some other courts. California, Washington, Maine, the District of Columbia, and Georgia are all examples of such jurisdictions. Equivalent courts in other states are variously known as courts of common pleas, (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and others), circuit courts (Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and others), district courts (Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and others) or, in the case of New York, supreme courts.
The term "superior court" raises the obvious question of superior to what. Formerly, many jurisdictions had inferior trial courts of limited jurisdiction such as municipal courts, traffic courts, and justice of the peace courts, so it was natural to call the next level of courts "superior." However, some states, like California, have unified their court systems. In California, all lower courts were absorbed into the Superior Courts of California after 1998. The lower courts now exist only as mere administrative subdivisions of the superior courts. The superior courts are legally no longer superior to any other trial courts. Thus, the term "superior court" persists in California only as a matter of tradition.
In Pennsylvania, the Superior Court is an appellate court. In New Jersey, the Superior Court comprises trial courts of general jurisdiction, courts of equity, and an appellate division. In Maine, the Superior Court is both a trial court of general jurisdiction and an appellate court that considers appeals from the Maine District Court in certain types of cases, as well as appeals from most state and municipal agencies.
In popular culture
- Senior Courts Act 1981, 1981, c. 54, s. 15(1)
- Senior Courts Act 1981, 1981, c. 54, 19(1)
- Senior Courts Act 1981, 1981, c. 54, s. 45(1)
- Federal Courts Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. F-7, ss. 3 and 4, as amended by S.C. 2002, c. 8, s. 16
- Alberta: Court of Appeal Act, R.S.A. 2000, c. C-30, s. 2(1); Court of Queen's Bench Act, R.S.A. 2000, c. C-31, s. 2(1).
- British Columbia: Court of Appeal Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 77, s. 2(1); Supreme Court Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 443, s. 3(1)
- Manitoba: The Court of Appeal Act, C.C.S.M. c. C240, s. 3; The Court of Queen's Bench Act, C.C.S.M. c. C280, s. 2
- Ontario: Courts of Justice Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C-43, s. 2 (Court of Appeal); s. 11 (Superior Court of Justice)
- Saskatchewan: The Court of Appeal Act, S.S. 2000, c. C-42.1 , s. 3(1); The Queen's Bench Act, 1998, S.S. 1998, c. Q-1.01, s. 3(1)
- Valin v. Langlois (1879), 5 App. Cases 115 (P.C.); Attorney General of Canada v. Law Society of British Columbia,  2 S.C.R. 307.
- Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46.
- Constitution Act, 1867, s. 96.
- Federal Courts Act, s. 5.2.
- Jacobson, Paul. "An introduction to our courts and court procedure". Retrieved 15 April 2012.
- Superior Court at the Internet Movie Database
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