A Full Court (less formally, full bench) refers to a court of law consisting of a greater-than-normal number of judges. Thus, in relation to a court usually presided over by a single judge, a Full Court would comprise a bench of three (or more) judges; for a court which, like many appellate courts, normally comprises three judges, a Full Court of that court would involve a bench of five (or more) judges. The expression originated in England but seems largely to have fallen into disuse there; however it is still used in Scotland and in many other Commonwealth jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan etc. Although possible, a Full Court typically does not involve the participation of all the existing judges of the court (a practice known, in the United States, as the court sitting en banc).
The term reflects the practice, before permanent appeal courts were established, of appeals from decisions of trial courts being heard by several judges of the same court (usually excluding the judge who gave the decision appealed from). Technically, a judgment of a Full Court is at the same level of the judicial hierarchy as the decision appealed from, and under the doctrine of precedent may not bind future courts at that level; however the greater number of judges involved and the fact that it is an appeal may make it almost as persuasive, in practice, as a judgment of the same number of judges in a higher court.
The historical trend to create separate courts of appeal, with permanent rather than ad hoc appellate judges, has reduced the need for the use of Full Courts. However they are still sometimes found in cases of great significance where there is either no possibility or no likelihood of a further appeal.
- E.g., in the Court of Criminal Appeal.
- See, for example, the Judiciary Act 1903 (Aust.) section 19 in relation to the High Court of Australia.
- See the Judicature Act 1908 (NZ).
- Exceptions being where the participation of all the appointed judges is the usual composition for main hearings, as with the High Court of Australia.
- Depending on how the doctrine of precedent applies to the particular court.
- Recent (rare) examples at the level of the House of Lords include the second Pinochet extradition case and the challenge to the use of evidence obtained by torture, in both of which a panel of seven judges sat rather than the usual five. The UK Supreme Court, which in 2009 succeeded to the judicial functions of the House of Lords, has adopted a more frequent practice of sitting as a bench of seven or even nine judges in important cases; however, it does not appear to use the terms "full court" or full bench" in reference to this practice.