Overview of court system

Australia

Australia

Australia’s courts operate under the common law legal system. Australia has a federal system of government, with legislative power divided between the federal branch of government and six state and two territory governments (for ease, we refer collectively to the states and territories as the state or states). Australia’s courts are similarly divided into eight separate state jurisdictions and a federal jurisdiction, which each operate on a parallel but independent hierarchy of courts. Lower courts are bound by previous decisions made by higher courts in the same hierarchy. Decisions made by higher courts are persuasive, but not binding, on lower courts in a different hierarchy (for example, decisions made by the Federal Court do not bind a state District Court).

State and federal courts broadly have jurisdiction over the application of legislation enacted by the state and federal parliaments respectively. The High Court of Australia is the ultimate court of appeal in Australia for all court systems. There are also tribunals created by specific legislation under state and federal jurisdictions. Courts often have jurisdictional limits as to the types of matters, and quantum in dispute, that they will hear. A dispute over a small quantum cannot be commenced, at first instance, before a state Supreme Court.

Australia’s official language is English. All Court proceedings will be conducted in English and judgments will be delivered in English.

Last modified 14 Feb 2024

Austria

Austria

Austrian courts operate under the civil law system. This means that the majority of substantive and procedural laws are codified in legal statues which take precedence over case law. Although case law is not legally binding, it has persuasive authority, and lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts.

The Austrian court system comprises 116 District Courts (Bezirksgerichte) as well as 20 Regional Courts (Landesgerichte). The District Courts and Regional Courts are both courts of first instance, but their jurisdiction to hear matters depends on the quantum of the claim and the subject matter in dispute. Second instance courts can be either Regional Courts, (referred to above) or one of the four Higher Regional Courts (Oberlandesgerichte). For civil proceedings, the final court of appeal is the Supreme Court in Vienna (Oberster Gerichtshof).

Specialized courts are established to deal with matters relating to commercial law, antitrust law, labor and social law. These special courts are either divisions within the above-mentioned courts or are self-standing special courts, such as the Labor and Social Court (Arbeits-und Sozialgericht) in Vienna.

The official court language in Austria is German. In addition, the minority languages Croatian, Slovenian and Hungarian are official languages in some regions of Austria.

Last modified 7 Jul 2023

Bahrain

Bahrain

The Kingdom of Bahrain operates under a civil law system with Civil Courts and Shari’a Courts. As such, there is no system of binding judicial precedent. All proceedings are conducted in Arabic and all non-Arabic documents submitted in proceedings must be translated.   

The Civil Courts are authorized to settle all commercial and civil cases, as well as all cases involving disputes related to personal status (i.e. issues related to marriage, child custody, alimony and inheritance) of non-Muslims. These courts have a four-tier system: 

  • the Court of Minor Causes and Court of Execution;
  • the High Court;
  • the High Court of Appeal; and
  • the Court of Cassation. 

The Court of Cassation is the highest civil judicial authority in Bahrain. 

It is common for these courts to appoint experts to assist them in relation to a variety of areas, such as finance, accounting, engineering and other technical matters.  

The Shari’a Courts hear all issues in relation to the personal status of Muslims of all nationalities. These courts have a four-tier system: 

  • the Lower Shari’a Court;
  • the Higher Shari’a Court;
  • the High Shari’a Court of Appeal; and
  • the Court of Cassation.

The Shari’a Courts are further divided into two sections: for Sunni Muslims and for Shia Muslims. 

In addition to the Civil Courts and Shari’a Courts, there is a Constitutional Court which acts as an independent judicial authority solely tasked with reviewing and ensuring that no enacted laws contradict the Constitution of Bahrain. The Constitutional Court also addresses the question of constitutionality of legal provisions which arise in any existing case and which are referred to it for determination. 

Bahrain’s courts have broad jurisdiction over legal disputes. For example, jurisdiction can be based upon a party having its domicile or place of business in Bahrain.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Belgium

Belgium

Belgium is a civil law jurisdiction and civil proceedings are regulated by the Belgian Code on Judicial Proceedings (the Code). The Code was enacted on 10 October 1967 and entered into force on 1 November 1970. It has since then been subject to various amendments.

Precedents do not bind other courts but they are nonetheless used as a source of authority. This is especially the case for judgments of the Belgian Supreme Court (Hof van Cassatie/Cour de cassation).

The language of court proceedings is subject to strict regulation. In civil, commercial and employment law matters, proceedings are conducted in French or Dutch depending on where the court is located. In criminal cases, the language of the defendant is the relevant element to determine the language of the proceedings. Whilst most cases are heard in French or Dutch, proceedings in courts located in the German-speaking areas of Belgium will be heard in German. Proceedings in English or any other language are not possible.

The Belgian civil court system is organized as a pyramid and consists of several levels:

  • At the lowest level are the 162 Justices of the Peace (vredegerecht/justice de paix), which are competent for small claims (not exceeding EUR5,000) and for a number of specific matters (such as disputes relating to rent or consumer credit), and, secondly, the 15 Police Tribunals (politierechtbank/tribunal de police), which deal with minor criminal offences and road traffic related matters (both criminal and civil).
  • At the next level, we have the courts of first instance. The Court of First Instance (rechtbank van eerste aanleg/tribunal de première instance) has general competence to handle all cases that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any other court or that concern certain specific issues. The Court of First Instance also acts as an appellate court for judgments from the Justices of the Peace and most judgments of the Police Tribunal. Each Court of First Instance is subdivided into three sections: the civil section, the criminal section and the family and youth section.

    At the same level, the Business Court (ondernemingsrechtbank/tribunal de l'entreprise) has jurisdiction in proceedings between or against businesses. The term 'business' essentially comprises sole traders, companies, associations and foundations (though some exceptions apply). Additionally, the Business Court deals with a number of specific commercial disputes, such as insolvency matters, shareholders' disputes or directors' liability cases.

    Also at the same level, the Employment Tribunal (arbeidsrechtbank/tribunal de travail) has jurisdiction in matters relating to employment or social security law.

    There are 13 Courts of First Instance, Business Courts and Employment Tribunals, with additional locations spread across the country.
  • The Court of Appeal hears appeals against judgments of the Court of First Instance (except where it sat as an appellate court), the Business Court and some judgments of the Police Tribunal. An appeal against a judgment of one of the Employment Tribunals is brought before the Employment Court (arbeidshof/cour de travail).

    At the same level, we have the Court of Assizes (Hof van Assisen/Cour d'assises), which deals with the most severe crimes, such as murder. A jury of twelve will decide on whether the defendant is guilty and, if so, the sentence. Unlike the Court of Appeal, the Court of Assizes is not an appellate court. One cannot appeal a judgment from the Court of Assizes - except directly before the Supreme Court.
  • At the highest level is the Supreme Court. Unlike the other appellate courts, which review the case anew on both points of law and fact, the Supreme Court will only examine whether the court has correctly applied the law.

In addition to these, Belgium also has specialized administrative courts, for instance for matters relating to immigration or urban planning, with the Council of State (Raad van State/Conseil d'état) as the highest administrative court. It is competent for appeals against judgments of the other administrative courts, with a role similar as that of the Supreme Court, and serves as the first and last instance administrative court in matters where no specialized administrative court exists.

Lastly, the Constitutional Court (Grondwettelijk Hof/Cour constitutionnelle) has exclusive jurisdiction to determine whether legislation enacted by one of the Belgian parliaments is in accordance with the Belgian Constitution or with the rules on the distribution of powers between the federal level, the communities or the regions. Other courts can refer preliminary questions to the Constitutional Court if they have doubts as to constitutionality of certain legislation.

Last modified 20 Oct 2023

Brazil

Brazil

Brazil is a civil law country where, in most cases, codified laws take precedence over judicial decisions. However, over the last 60 years or so, Brazil has instituted several procedures that give greater weight than previously to the normative effect of judicial decisions. The main reason to give judicial decisions such importance is the overwhelming case load in courts and the need to make them more efficient (In fact, the Brazilian Federal Constitution demands a “reasonable duration” of all judicial proceedings - Article 5, LXXVIII, of the Federal Constitution). As a result, the term precedent and even the concept of stare decisis (i.e., determining points in litigation according to precedent), have started to appear more frequently in Brazil, in both scholars’ opinions and legislated changes enacted in recent years. Brazil has a relatively new system of precedents introduced by the Code of Civil Procedure (Law No 13,105 of March 16, 2015 - CPC). This new system has numerous peculiarities in Brazilian Law. Article 927, for example, states that the judges and courts in Brazil will observe: past decisions from the Federal Supreme Court in constitutional matters; the binding decisions of the Federal Supreme Court; the past decisions by the Superior Court of Justice (Brazil’s court of standardization of federal matters); and decisions of highest tier state courts.

Leaving aside special courts covering areas such as military, electoral and labor (which fall outside the scope of this report), the Brazilian civil justice system is structured into two different judicial branches:

  • federal courts; and
  • the courts organized by each state (state courts).

The jurisdiction of the federal and state courts does not overlap. The jurisdiction of the federal courts will depend on:

  • the matter under dispute (ratione materiae); and
  • the legal nature of each of the parties involved in the litigation (ratione personae).

State courts will hear cases that do not fall under the jurisdiction of other courts. 

The different federal and state courts and the type of disputes that they have jurisdiction over are as follows.

Federal Low Courts

These courts are scattered over the capitals and major cities of Brazil. In general, these courts have jurisdiction to hear most disputes in which the federal government, federal bodies and agencies and some federal companies take part as plaintiffs, defendants, or intervening  parties. Also, these courts have jurisdiction over disputes involving a foreign government or organism and companies or individuals domiciled in Brazil or disputes involving one of the referred foreign entities and a Brazilian city government. The Federal Low Courts are also competent to enforce foreign awards after the exequatur process before the Superior Court of Justice.

State Low Courts

Each state is empowered to organize its own Judiciary Branch. These courts are spread almost all over the country and have jurisdiction to rule on most disputes between private parties. In addition, these State Low Courts have jurisdiction over disputes based on private law or state and municipal environmental laws, disputes involving the   government of the respective state, as well as state-owned companies (like Petrobras), and cities’ governments and city-owned companies. Furthermore, there are low courts specialized in bankruptcy (and even in case a federal body takes part of the bankruptcy/rehabilitation proceedings, for instance, as a creditor, this will not result in jurisdiction of the federal courts in detriment of the particular state bankruptcy court), and intellectual property disputes.

Federal High Courts

Their territorial jurisdiction is divided into six different regions (each covering two or more states). In most cases, these courts rule the appeals filed in the lawsuits started in the Federal Low courts located in the applicable region.

State High Courts

Generally, these High Courts rule over the appeals filed in lawsuits started at the State Low Courts where the respective High Court is located.

Superior Court of Justice

This federal court is located in Brasilia, the country’s capital. One of the main roles of this court is to rule over appeals filed against decisions rendered either by a Federal or State High Court when:

  • such decisions contravene a treaty, convention or federal law; or
  • upon the analysis of a given treaty, convention or federal law, such decisions conflict with precedents issued by the Supreme Court of Justice or the Supreme Court on the same matter.

It is also the court responsible to grant the exequatur of foreign decisions, foreign arbitral awards or foreign judgments in Brazil. An exequatur is a precondition that   permits the enforcement of a foreign decision, judgment or arbitral award within Brazilian territory.

Supreme Court

It is the last level of the Brazilian judiciary and, like the Superior Court of Justice, is located in Brasilia. One of the main roles of this federal court is to rule over appeals against decisions rendered by a Federal or a State High Court or, even, decisions rendered by the Superior Court of Justice, when these decisions:

  • directly contravene the Brazilian Constitution (the violation must have “general repercussions” in order to be analyzed by the Supreme Court, meaning that the issue discussed in the appeal needs to be relevant from an economic, political, social or legal standpoint and that it transcends the interests of the parties involved);
  • declare a given treaty, convention or federal law as unconstitutional; or
  • relate to a law or ordinance deemed valid and issued by the relevant authority in one of the Brazilian states or cities in detriment to the Brazilian Constitution.

Further, Brazil does not have a separate administrative jurisdiction, which means that the judicial branch including the federal and state courts have jurisdiction over all disputes, including disputes involving the executive branch or state-owned entities.

Court proceedings are generally public, except where court proceedings are to be confidential, namely cases involving:

  • public or social interest;
  • family law;
  • information protected by the right to privacy; and
  • agreements with an arbitration clause.

Last modified 17 Oct 2023

Canada

Canada

This overview describes the judicial system and practices in the Federal Court of Canada as well as most provincial/territorial courts. Variations from the prevailing approach are identified for the province of Quebec, which has a legal system distinct from those of all other Canadian jurisdictions. 

Canada has a federal system of government where legislative power is divided between the federal Parliament on the one hand, and the ten provincial and three territorial Legislatures on the other. 

For the purpose of this summary on dispute resolution in Canada, the provinces and territories will simply be referred to as the provinces. Further, while this summary is intended to provide a general overview of litigation in Canada, each jurisdiction has its own procedural rules and practices that may differ slightly from the general information provided herein. 

The provinces each have a superior court. Superior courts are courts of inherent jurisdiction, which is to say that they hear cases on any matter except where a statute or rule specifically confers jurisdiction on some other court or tribunal. In addition to the provincial superior courts, there is also the Federal Court. The Federal Court does not have inherent jurisdiction but, rather, has a statutory jurisdiction over cases related to matters within the legislative jurisdiction of Parliament (e.g. intellectual property, aviation, competition (anti-trust), admiralty, immigration, etc.). The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court in Canada and it is not possible to appeal its decisions. 

Canadian jurisdictions have adopted the common law system, with one exception: the province of Quebec, which has adopted the civil law system. Specifically, Quebec has adopted the Civil Code of Quebec that is largely based on the Napoleonic Code of 1804. Unlike the common law, which has been described as judge-made law insofar as decisions are based on precedents, civil law – including civil law in Quebec – applies primarily the principles and rules codified in the jurisdiction’s civil code. 

In Quebec and in the federal court system, civil matters are tried by the judge alone. In the common law Canadian provinces, civil proceedings can be tried by a judge alone, or by a jury. However, jury trials are the exception in civil proceedings and are rare in commercial disputes. Of note, there is no constitutional right to a jury in a civil case. Further, Canadian courts have discretion to direct that a matter be tried by a judge alone. The court is likely to exercise this discretion where the case is of moderate or greater complexity. Civil jury trials are more common in personal injury claims and in some employment law cases. 

A monetary judgment obtained in a provincial superior court cannot be enforced outside of the province in question. However, all provinces (other than Quebec) have enacted legislation that provides a shortcut to the enforcement of extra-provincial judgments (with the exception of judgments obtained in Quebec).

Last modified 25 Sep 2023

Chile

Chile

Chile is a civil law country with codified laws where judicial decisions do not constitute law or precedent, even though several procedures have incorporated certain elements of judicial decisions as precedent (for example, labor law). Nevertheless, jurisprudence or case law is of the utmost importance in civil law.

Chile’s basic court system is arranged like many other civil law systems, with Ordinary Courts, Appellate Courts and a Supreme Court. Ordinary Courts’ jurisdiction is limited to the smaller territorial-administrative divisions, Appellate Courts oversee all Ordinary Courts from a wider determined territory and the Supreme Court exercises jurisdiction over the national territory. Special courts also play an important role in our court system. These include: Local Justice Courts, Family Courts, Labor and Employment Courts, Tax and Customs Courts, Public Procurement Court, Environmental Courts, Industrial Property Court and Antitrust Court.

With the increasing complexity of the matters faced by the courts, there is a growing specialization of the courts in Chile. The most concrete example is the Supreme Court, which counts which has four different specialized chambers: civil and commercial; criminal; public and administrative and labor and employment law. Court proceedings are generally public, except where court proceedings may be confidential, namely cases involving:

  • public or social interest;
  • family law;
  • information protected by the right to privacy; and
  • arbitration cases.

Last modified 10 Oct 2023

China

China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a civil law jurisdiction and the judicial system is organized into four levels:

  • the Basic People’s Courts;
  • the Intermediate People’s Courts;
  • the High People’s Courts; and
  • the Supreme People’s Court.

Usually, major foreign-related cases fall within the jurisdiction of the Intermediate People’s Court. A major foreign-related case is a case: (i) in which either the claimant or defendant is a foreign party from outside of Mainland China; and (ii) which involves a large claim, has complex merits, or involves a large number of parties. In practice, different courts apply different standards for determining what constitutes a large claim.

The litigation in PRC is generally all in the official language of PRC, which is Chinese Mandarin. However, in areas which are predominantly populated by ethnic minorities court proceedings can be conducted in the language commonly used by the ethnic minority in that area.

Mainland China is not a common law jurisdiction, therefore previous court judgments have no binding force in subsequent cases. This means that when considering regulations, lower courts are not bound by higher courts’ decisions. However, lower courts do give weight to the judgments and reasoning of higher courts.

Last modified 30 Oct 2023

Denmark

Denmark

Denmark is a civil law jurisdiction. There are three levels of civil courts in Denmark.

  • The Supreme Court (one);
  • High Courts (courts of appeal) (two); and
  • District Courts (24).

In addition, there are two specialized courts: the Maritime and Commercial High Court and the Land Registration Court.

In addition, the courts of Denmark include the Court of the Faroe Islands, the Courts of Greenland, the Appeals Permission Board, the Special Court of Indictment and Revision, the External Activity Review, the Judicial Appointments Council, and the Danish Court Administration.

Most civil cases start at a District Court level. An individual court’s jurisdiction to hear a dispute usually depends on the domicile of the defendant, but other criteria may apply depending on the type of dispute.

The Danish legal system is based on the so-called “two-tier principle”. This means that a party to a case may appeal the ruling of one court to a court of a higher instance.

The main source of law in Denmark is legislation, and Danish law is characterized by extensive and systematic written legislation. Other important sources of law include case law, administrative practices, and legislative materials. These sources also hold significant importance in the interpretation of the law and the establishment of applicable law.

Particularly, case law plays an important role in legal interpretation and can influence the application and understanding of the law in Denmark.

In Denmark, legal precedent is not considered binding on lower courts. Each case is decided on its own merits, and lower courts have the discretion to interpret and apply the law according to their own judgment.

However, Danish courts do recognize the value and persuasive authority of precedents set by higher courts, especially decisions of the Supreme Court. The decisions of higher courts, although not binding, are highly influential and are typically followed by lower courts unless there are strong reasons to depart from them.

The language of the courts in Denmark is predominantly Danish. However, in certain cases, the general rule can be deviated from, and, for example, permission can be granted to have a witness testify in English or one of the other Scandinavian languages without the use of an interpreter.

Last modified 20 Jul 2023

Czech Republic

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is a civil law jurisdiction. Unlike in common law systems, Czech civil courts interpret the law using legislation and regulations. Judicial precedent is not a formal source of law.

The civil justice system is organized into:

  • 86 District Courts;
  • eight Regional Courts;
  • two High Courts; and
  • the Supreme Court.

District and Regional Courts act as courts of first instance. The Regional and High Courts act as courts of second instance (i.e., courts of appeal). The Supreme Court is the highest judicial body of the civil justice system and decides extraordinary appeals from decisions of the courts of second instance.

Most civil court cases are decided at first instance by single judges. Three judge senates hear appeal cases and higher, and in the Supreme Court, a grand senate of at least nine judges may decide.

Civil proceedings may only be conducted in the Czech language.

All civil courts are internally organised by the judicial departments. Each calendar year, the president of the court issues a work schedule, which informs the agenda for each judicial division. The division of the civil courts into judicial divisions and the organisation of work schedules is intended, among other things, to ensure specialisation in judicial decision-making.

Civil procedure in the Czech Republic consists of mainly two stages, with the possibility of extraordinary review by the Supreme Court. The vast majority of cases begin at the District Court level. The remaining cases – which include specific matters such as intellectual property and corporate disputes - start at the Regional Court level. A decision of the court of first instance may be appealed on legal or factual grounds. A decision of a court of appeal may be challenged on its legal grounds (an extraordinary appeal). By deciding on extraordinary appeals, the Supreme Court unifies Czech case law.

The most important decisions and opinions of higher courts are published by the Supreme Court in the Collection of Judicial Decisions and Opinions. These and other decisions of higher courts are given a “quasi-precedential character”. This means that although the courts are not bound by these decisions, there is a presumption that they will follow the higher courts' interpretation of the law.

A civil case may reach the Constitutional Court in some cases. The Constitutional Court is not part of the system of general civil courts. Its task is to protect constitutionality, fundamental rights and freedoms arising from the Constitution, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and other constitutional laws of the Czech Republic, and to guarantee the constitutional character of the exercise of state power. The Constitutional Court can therefore only intervene in a civil case if the general civil courts have not acted in a constitutionally compliant manner. In practice, the most common reason for bringing a case to the Constitutional Court is a violation of the right to a fair trial.

Last modified 17 Jul 2023

Finland

Finland

Finnish courts operate under the civil law system. Codified statutes take precedence over case law, but case law is still commonly relied on before the courts and provides important guidance on the interpretation of the codified statutes.

Litigation is conducted either in Finnish or Swedish, as the two official languages in Finland. In the home region of the Sámi people, it is also possible to use the Sámi language before the court. If a party in a civil matter requires interpretation or translation services during the proceedings, they must arrange it themself and at their own expense unless the court, on considering the nature of the matter, orders otherwise. However, the court will ensure that the citizens of other Nordic countries receive any interpretation and translation assistance they require in proceedings.

Decisions of a District Court can be appealed to a Court of Appeal if leave for continued consideration is granted by the Court of Appeal. Decisions of the Court of Appeal can be appealed to the Supreme Court provided the Supreme Court grants leave to appeal. Lower courts are not legally bound by decisions of the higher courts in Finland, although the decisions of the Supreme Court have a strong and notable influence on the lower courts’ decision-making. In Finland, there are 20 District Courts, five Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

In addition, Finland has Administrative Courts which review decisions made by the authorities. Decisions of the Administrative Courts can be appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court which, in most cases, requires leave to appeal from the Supreme Administrative Court.

There are also certain specialist courts in Finland including:

  • the Market Court (hearing, amongst other things, IP, competition and public procurement cases);
  • the Labour Court;
  • the Insurance Court; and
  • the High Court of Impeachment.

Decisions of the Market Court and the Insurance Court can be appealed to the Supreme Court or the Supreme Administrative Court depending on the nature of the matter. Decisions of the Labour Court and the High Court of Impeachment are final and therefore non-appealable.

Last modified 9 Oct 2023

France

France

France has a civil law legal system, based on codified laws. When deciding cases, judges must interpret the law. Lower courts are not bound by higher courts' decisions, although decisions of higher courts have a certain influence over the lower courts and are considered to be persuasive.

In France, the court system is divided into two major branches: a judicial branch and an administrative branch. First instance judicial courts are divided into courts of general jurisdiction (including criminal courts and civil courts) and specialized courts, such as the Labour Courts and the Commercial Courts.

The civil court system is composed by 165 Judicial Courts (Tribunaux judiciaires). These courts result from the merger, in 2020, of the District Courts (Tribunaux d’Instance) and High Courts (Tribunaux de Grande Instance). Since then, the Judicial Court has been the sole court of first instance in civil, criminal and commercial matters, with jurisdiction to hear disputes that have not been assigned to another court, regardless of the value of the claim. Some Judicial Courts specialize in complex cases or cases involving a larger number of parties.

Where the claim is for payment of a sum not exceeding EUR5,000, it is compulsory to attempt conciliation, mediation or a participatory procedure before going to court, or the claim will be inadmissible.

In some cities, there is a Local Court (Tribunal de proximité), whose jurisdiction is similar to those of the former District Court, i.e. civil cases involving less than EUR10,000.

France has two specialized courts, the Labour Courts (Conseil des Prud'hommes), which have jurisdiction in all litigation cases between employers and employees, and the Commercial Courts (Tribunal de commerce), which handle cases involving commercial transactions or litigation between merchants. The judges in both the Labour Courts and the Commercial Courts are non-professional judges who are elected members of their community.

There are 36 civil Courts of Appeal in France and one civil Supreme Court (Cour de cassation), which is the court of last instance.

In France, the court proceedings are conducted in French. However, the International Chamber of the Commercial Court of Paris allows the parties, subject to certain conditions, to use English during the proceedings, and to obtain a translation of the judgment in English.

Last modified 9 Nov 2023

Germany

Germany

Germany follows a civil law tradition, its jurisdiction consists of four types of judicial authorities:

  • approximately 640 Local Courts (Amtsgerichte);
  • approximately 640 Local Courts (Amtsgerichte);
  • 115 District Courts (Landgerichte);· 24 Higher Regional Courts (Oberlandesgerichte); and
  • the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof). 

In proceedings before the District Courts which concern matters of trade and commerce, particularly inbusiness-to-business cases, the parties may request that the case be handled by a specialist chamber of commerce, with a panel comprising of one professional judge and two commercial lay judges.

Legal representatives must be admitted to the German bar before they can appear in the District Courts and Higher Regional Courts.

In all civil cases heard by the Federal Court of Justice, legal representatives must be specifically admitted to the bar at the Federal Court of Justice (Rechtsanwalt beim Bundesgerichtshof). Legal representatives at the Federal Court of Justice are only allowed to practice before the Federal Court of Justice or other higher courts - but not before any of the lower courts. The requirement for a legal representative specifically admitted to the bar at the Federal Court of Justice does not apply in criminal cases. Here, representation by any legal representative admitted to the bar in Germany is sufficient.

German language is the mandatory language of the courts. Typically, all judicial documents and oral hearings will be in German. However, some Regional Courts offer the possibility of conducting oral hearings in English.

The threshold for accessing the German courts to bring civil proceedings is generally low. Litigation risk is both predictable and quantifiable, as German law does not permit punitive damages or contingency fees. The Rule of Law Index 2022 published by the World Justice Project ranks Germany fourth in the civil justice category, which measures whether ordinary people can resolve their grievances peacefully and effectively through the civil justice system. German court proceedings are also characterized by their efficiency and the absence of undue influence.

Last modified 12 Oct 2023

Hong Kong, SAR

Hong Kong, SAR

In 1997, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong and Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region of the PRC. Hong Kong has its own mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, which governs the laws applicable specifically to the region of Hong Kong. The Basic Law took effect on July 1, 1997 after the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the PRC. All the laws previously in force in Hong Kong (including common law, statutes, etc) are maintained under the Basic Law except for any that contravene the Basic Law, and subject to any amendment by the Hong Kong Legislative Council. National laws of the PRC are not applied in Hong Kong except for those listed in Annex III of the Basic Law, which concern matters such as consular privileges and immunities.

Hong Kong operates under a common law legal system and its courts are separate from those in the PRC. In the event of conflict between statutory law and common law, the former will prevail. Commercial disputes exceeding HKD3 million (around USD385,000) are usually brought in the Court of First Instance of the High Court. Smaller claims are brought in the District Court or the Small Claims Tribunal. There are also specialized courts and tribunals, such as the Labour Tribunal and Lands Tribunal, which handle specific types of disputes. The highest appellate court in Hong Kong is the Court of Final Appeal, which hears appeals on both civil and criminal matters. In Hong Kong, the lower courts will be bound by the decisions and judgments of the higher courts.

Court proceedings may be conducted in either Chinese or English. Irrespective of the language used in the proceedings, witnesses may give evidence in the language of their choice and the court will accordingly arrange for interpretation facilities.

Last modified 2 Nov 2023

Hungary

Hungary

Hungary follows a civil law tradition, where codified statutes take precedence over judicial decisions. Disputes are resolved by a centralized four-level court system:

  • 113 District Courts operate as first instance courts;
  • 20 General Courts operate as first instance courts in some special cases and appellate courts in others;
  • Five Courts of Appeal operate as exclusively appellate courts; and
  • The Curia operates as the ultimate supreme court in Hungary.

Even though the Constitutional Court cannot be regarded as part of the Hungarian court system in a traditional sense, it has one important competence in litigation matters: a party may challenge a decision before the Constitutional Court if all available judicial remedies have been exhausted and the decision is based on a law that is incompatible with the Fundamental Law of Hungary, or if the judgment itself is unconstitutional.

In 2020, a limited precedent system was introduced into Hungarian jurisprudence, such that lower courts may not deviate from a decision of the Curia published after January 1, 2012 (precedents) unless they provide a written justification as to why their interpretation of the law differs from the relevant precedent. Whether a departure from a precedent is justified or not will ultimately be decided by a special grand chamber of the Curia in a remedy called the uniformity complaint procedure.

The official language of the proceedings is Hungarian, which means that court submissions and court decisions must both be delivered in Hungarian unless EU or international law provides otherwise. At oral hearings, all parties are entitled to use their mother tongue, regional or minority language. In practice this means that oral statements or testimonies in a foreign language are taken with the help of an assigned interpreter, where appropriate.

Last modified 21 Jun 2023

Italy

Italy

Italy's legal system follows the civil law tradition, where codified statutes are of primary importance.

The Italian civil court system is organized into a three-tier structure:

  • Courts of First Instance;
  • Courts of Appeal; and
  • the Supreme Court (Court of Cassation).

Proceedings before the courts are conducted exclusively in Italian. Codified laws prevail over case law; in Italy judgments have only argumentative value, not precedent value.

There are specialized courts for industrial property and corporate matters. Every Italian city has a Court of First Instance and there are 26 Courts of Appeal.

Rules on jurisdiction are set out in the Italian Code of Civil Procedure (Italian Code). These rules determine which Court of First instance a particular case should be filed in. The territorial jurisdiction of the Courts of Appeal depends on the location of the Court of First Instance that issued the decision to be appealed. The seat of the Court of Cassation is unique, as it is fixed in Rome.

On October 17, 2022, Law Decree No. 149 of October 10, 2022 was issued, in which the Italian government reformed the Italian Code to speed up ordinary proceedings, which were generally considered to take too long.

It is now expected that proceedings before the Court of First Instance should take a maximum of two years, while appeal proceedings should take a maximum of one year.

Last modified 31 May 2023

Ireland

Ireland

Ireland operates a common law legal system within the European Union and has a written Constitution which sets out certain fundamental rights and legal processes.

Legislation is passed by the Oireachtas (parliament), and case law (in the form of published judicial decisions) is binding as legal precedent.

The official languages of the state are English and Irish (Gaeilge), and either of the two official languages can be used in court proceedings.

Most commercial cases are heard in the High Court, which is the court of unlimited original jurisdiction. It hears cases where the claim is worth more than EUR75,000 (or EUR60,000 in personal injury actions). Civil cases are usually heard by one judge. Juries are used in defamation cases (although this is currently under review by the legislature).

The Commercial Court is a specialist division of the High Court and a party can apply for its case to be heard by the Commercial Court if: (1) the case is valued at over EUR1 million; (2) it is a trademark or copyright dispute; or (3) if the Commercial Court agrees to hear the case because it is commercial in nature. The Commercial Court operates a strict case-management system and is an efficient and reliable process for dispute resolution (with the vast majority of Commercial Court matters being decided within a year). The High Court also has specialist lists and judges for matters such as competition law, arbitration, judicial review, commercial planning and environment.

There is no monetary limit on awards made by the High Court. It hears administrative/judicial review applications challenging decisions made by certain tribunals and state bodies. It also hears appeals from the Circuit Court (and can decide points of law on cases referred from the District Court).

High Court decisions in civil matters can be appealed to the Court of Appeal where they are determined by three judges. Cases can be further appealed to the Supreme Court if they concern matters of general public importance or it is necessary in the interests of justice.

Although the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal, points of unsettled EU law may be referred to the Courts of Justice of the European Union.

The Circuit Court and District Court are courts of limited and local jurisdiction and are located throughout Ireland. The District Court hears claims valued at up to EUR15,000 and the Circuit Court hears claims valued between EUR15,000 and EUR75,000 (or up to EUR60,000 in personal injury actions).

There are also several administrative bodies and tribunals which adjudicate in specialist areas (such as An Bord Pleanála for planning appeals, the Labour Court, the Employment Appeals Tribunal etc.)

Ireland's legal system is entirely separate to Northern Ireland.

Last modified 5 Dec 2023

Japan

Japan

Japan is primarily a civil law country, where codified laws predominate. However, case law offers non-binding guidance that may, in some cases, be persuasive, and may be relied upon providing it does not conflict with the codified laws.

The Supreme Court, the highest court in Japan, exercises final appellate jurisdiction within Japan's judicial system. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear cases involving:

  • violations of the Constitution;
  • serious procedural breaches by the lower courts; and
  • important issues concerning the construction of laws and regulations.

Decisions in the Supreme Court are made either by the grand bench, composed of the entire body of 15 justices sitting together, or by one of the three petty benches, composed of five justices each.

Japan has eight high courts, each with corresponding regional jurisdiction. The eight high courts are located in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sendai, Sapporo and Takamatsu. High courts generally have appellate jurisdiction over judgments rendered by district courts and family courts, as well as original jurisdiction for certain criminal matters. Typically, a case heard by the high court will be adjudicated by a panel of three judges.

The Intellectual Property High Court in Tokyo is the only specific high court. It was established in April 2005 to handle cases relating to intellectual property, such as appeals from district courts in civil cases relating to patent rights and actions against decisions made by the Japan Patent Office.

There are 50 district courts in Japan, each with territorial jurisdiction over a single prefecture - with the noted exception of Hokkaido Prefecture, which is divided into four districts. The 49 district courts are separated into branches; there are 203 branches in total. The district court will generally be the court of first instance for civil and criminal matters, and also serves as the appellate court for judgments arising from summary courts. Cases heard in the first instance in district courts are adjudicated by either one or three judges, and appeals from summary courts are heard by three-judge panels.

There are 438 summary courts throughout Japan. The summary courts have jurisdiction over civil cases involving claims for amounts of up to JPY1.4 million (c. EUR11,000) and certain criminal cases. Summary court cases are adjudicated by a single summary court judge.

There are 203 branches and 77 local family courts throughout Japan. The family court has jurisdiction over divorce and ancillary child custody where the child is domiciled in Japan.

Litigation is only conducted in the local official language in Japan (i.e., Japanese).

Last modified 27 Oct 2023

Luxembourg

Luxembourg

Luxembourg is a civil law jurisdiction, where the legal system is based on codified laws. Unlike common law systems, which heavily rely on precedent, Luxembourgish courts primarily rely on the principles and rules established in the law. However, previous court rulings in similar cases are given significant weight and consideration. This is especially true when a statute is ambiguous or lacks clarity, as it provides judges with the opportunity to establish legal principles through interpretation.

The official procedural languages used in court proceedings are French, German, and Luxembourgish. French remains the predominant language used in legal proceedings. However, it is worth noting that filing exhibits in English is possible, even though English is not an official language in Luxembourg.

Luxembourg has a Constitutional Court and two orders of jurisdictions: the judiciary, which handles civil disputes, commercial claims, criminal matters, and the administrative order, which resolves disputes with Luxembourg’s administration. Additionally, there is a "social order" that deals with disputes related to social security matters.

The Constitutional Court reviews the constitutionality of laws. Its decisions are not subject to appeal.

The judicial order consists of three levels:

  • the Magistrates’ Courts (Justice de Paix), which serves as the court of first-instance and handles minor civil and commercial cases (there are three such courts, one in Luxembourg-Ville, one in Diekirch, and one in Esch-sur-Alzette) with a value up to EUR15,000 - as well as cases concerning employment and lease contracts;
  • the District Courts (Tribunaux d’Arrondissement), situated in Luxembourg and Diekirch, which handle civil and commercial cases not assigned to other jurisdictions and which serve as criminal courts; and
  • the Superior Court of Justice (Cour Supérieure de Justice) in Luxembourg City, which includes the Court of Cassation (Cour de Cassation), the Court of Appeal (Cour d’Appel), and the General Prosecutor's Office (Parquet General). The Court of Cassation reviews judgments issued by the Court of Appeal and final judgments from the District Courts and Magistrates’ Courts.

The administrative order comprises the Administrative Tribunal and the Administrative Court. The Administrative Tribunal, located in Luxembourg, hears appeals against administrative decisions where no other appeal is available, and it typically deals with disputes related to tax matters. Appeals against decisions of the Administrative Tribunal can be filed with the Administrative Court, which serves as the supreme administrative jurisdiction. Luxembourg is also home to international courts, including the Benelux Court of Justice and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Last modified 15 Nov 2023

Kuwait

Kuwait

The Kuwaiti legal system is a civil law jurisdiction that is a blend of French civil law, Islamic legal principles and Egyptian law. The Kuwaiti legal and regulatory framework is not as developed as Western legal systems. The applicable legal and regulatory principles are dynamic and subject to frequent changes in application and interpretation. This means that it is often necessary to liaise with the relevant government authorities in order to seek their confirmation on the application of the law in relation to particular business activities. In addition to obtaining confirmation of the current legislative and regulatory framework, an understanding of the current policies and interpretations in force and the practical approach to the resolution of these matters is important.

There are further difficulties in advising on the interpretation of applicable laws and regulations in Kuwait because the procedure for reporting legislation and court decisions is usually confidential and, when made public, the system for reporting decisions is not as developed as other jurisdictions. In addition, as Kuwait is a civil law jurisdiction, there is no binding system of judicial precedent as there is in common law jurisdictions.

The Kuwaiti courts have a three-tiered structure, comprised of:

  • General Courts; (Courts of First Instance);
  • Courts of Appeal; and
  • the Court of Cassation.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Mexico

Mexico

Mexico has a civil law system. There are federal laws and local laws for each of the 32 states. Federal laws apply to all states, while local laws apply only to the state in which they are enacted. Courts are divided into federal and state courts:

  • the Federal judicial system includes:
    • Supreme Court
    • Electoral Court
    • Regional plenaries
    • Collegiate Circuit Courts
    • Collegiate Appeal Courts
    • District Courts
    • Federal Judiciary Council
  • the State (i.e. local) judicial system generally includes:
    • Civil Courts
    • Family Courts
    • Oral Trial Courts
    • Human Rights Protection Courts1
    • Courts of Appeal

A contractual choice of jurisdiction in favor of a foreign court will be recognized by the Mexican courts, except where statute mandates the matter be heard in the courts of Mexico.


1Some jurisdictions only

Last modified 17 Oct 2023

Netherlands

Netherlands

The Netherlands is a civil law jurisdiction. Dutch courts operate under the Dutch Civil Code and the Dutch Code of Civil Procedure. Dutch courts primarily look at the codified principles and rules, although precedents are often used in court to strengthen a case. The principal sources of law in the Netherlands include:

  • The Constitution of the Netherlands, which forms the basis for legislation and provides the framework for the organisation of the Dutch state;
  • Codified laws;
  • Case law: serve as a guidance only, the decisions of the Supreme Court of Justice are particularly persuasive on itself and on lower courts;
  • Acts of Parliament, treaties; and
  • Some decisions of international law organisations.

Judiciary System in the Netherlands

Judicial authorities are organized into:

  • 11 district courts;
  • 4 courts of appeal; and
  • the Supreme Court.

The district court comprises five sectors, which always include the administrative sector, civil sector, criminal sector and a sub-district sector. Each district court has a limited jurisdictional sector (i.e the Cantonal Courts). This division covers rental disputes, labour law and monetary claims up to EUR25,000. The civil division of the relevant district court deals with all other commercial disputes.

In principle, litigation is conducted in Dutch. However, with the launch of the Netherlands Commercial Court (“NCC”) in 2019, parties can choose to commence litigation in English as well. The NCC is seated in Amsterdam and focuses on complex international commercial disputes. It offers experienced judges, delivers reliable judgments and a fast resolution of disputes. With the launch of the NCC, the Dutch judiciary aims to provide a quicker and less expensive alternative to arbitration and enable international parties to litigate in English.

Most cases in the civil sector are decided by a single judge. However, more complex cases can bring forth a full-bench panel with three judges.

If a party disagrees with the district court judgment, the case may be appealed at a court of appeal and subsequently at the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the Netherlands. Thereafter, only the European Court of Justice is capable of overturning a Dutch ruling.

Only matters of broader relevance for society are dealt with by the Supreme Court. The facts of the case as established by the lower courts will not be subject to discussion by the Court, it mainly examines whether the law has been applied correctly and procedures properly followed by the lower courts. Supreme Court rulings serve as a strict guideline to the lower courts.

Last modified 18 Oct 2023

New Zealand

New Zealand

New Zealand's courts operate under the common law legal system. Generally speaking, case law interprets Parliament's legislation, but cannot change or overrule it. Parliament will from time to time pass statutes that codify existing case law and may change the previous position.

The New Zealand court system has various levels of first instance and appeal courts, including:

  • 58 District Courts
  • 19 High Courts
  • One Court of Appeal
  • One Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in New Zealand. Most commercial cases start in the High Court, and can then be appealed to the Court of Appeal and or possibly the Supreme Court.  Lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts.

There are also specialist courts, including the Employment Court, the Environment Court and the Family Court, and some specialist tribunals.

It's not possible to litigate in languages other than the official languages of New Zealand. English is most common, but Te Reo Māori can also be spoken in court. Furthermore, evidence can be provided in a foreign language, which will then be translated and interpreted. Judgments will not be given in a foreign language.

Last modified 31 May 2023

Norway

Norway

Norway is a civil law jurisdiction, meaning that rules are generally set by statutes passed by the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament) rather than by case law. Nevertheless, case law by way of Supreme Court decisions remains a valid and important source of law, clarifying and establishing rules of law within the framework set by the legislator. Legislative history/preparatory works, lower courts’ decisions, administrative practice and legal theory summarising or criticising rules of law are also relevant sources of law in Norway.

The Norwegian court system consists of the following courts:

  • 23 courts of first instance (called “District Courts”);
  • six regional Appeal Courts; and
  • the Supreme Court, which is Norway’s final court of appeal based in Oslo.

The official language of the court is Norwegian, and as a general rule interpreters will be required if foreign languages are used. However, the court can make exceptions to this rule if all the participants in the action understand the foreign language being used. In this regard, we note that Scandinavian languages seldom raise any issues as to understanding. The same applies to English speaking parties and witnesses; such evidence, including the examination of such witnesses, will quite often be allowed without any interpreters involved. Other languages normally require the involvement of interpreters. It is rare for counsel not to speak in Norwegian in court, however the court may in principle allow litigators speaking in other languages to act as counsel or co-counsel insofar it does not give rise to any concern.

District Courts are normally the courts of first instance in most medium to high value civil disputes. Cases in the District Courts are usually decided by a single professional judge. The professional judge may be assisted by two or four lay judges or lay judges with specialist knowledge if the parties request so, or if the judge deems such assistance appropriate.

Before bringing civil claims before a District Court, claimants often need to bring their case before a Conciliation Board first. While normally this requirement applies to small claims only (being claims below NOK200,000 in value), higher value claims also have to be brought before a Conciliation Board first if one of the parties is unrepresented. The Conciliation Boards are staffed with non-legal members appointed by the municipality council and serve two main purposes: (i) they facilitate mediation to resolve disputes; and (ii) they can issue judgments upon request by both parties, provided that the claim exceeds NOK200,000. In specific situations, for example where both parties have legal representation and the claim exceeds NOK200,000, the claimant may bring the claim directly before the District Court without having to go to a Conciliation Board first.

Apart from the ordinary courts and the Conciliation Boards, parties can turn to specialized or quasi-courts (administrative bodies) which have substantive jurisdiction within specific areas. For example, the Labor Court deals with disputes arising from collective agreements, including their existence, interpretation and validity. This court has exclusive jurisdiction, meaning that cases which fall under its jurisdiction cannot begin in ordinary courts. While judgments of the Labor Court are usually conclusive, appeals may be allowed under rare exceptions. Other examples include: (i) the Financial Complaints Tribunal (Finansklagenemnda), which handles issues between consumers and financial entities like banks and insurance companies, and (ii) the Market Council, which handles complaints over the Consumer Authority’s decisions under the Marketing Practices Act. Specialized and cost-effective tribunals can serve as a low-cost alternative to proceedings before the ordinary courts, and in some circumstances they are a pre-requisite to commencing a claim before a District Court. However, note that the decisions of tribunals such as the Financial Complaints Tribunal are quite often not binding on the parties.

Last modified 29 Oct 2023

Oman

Oman

Oman’s courts operate under the Judiciary Power Law (R.D 90/99), Civil and Commercial Procedures Law (R.D 97/99) and Oman Arbitration Law (R.D 47/97). Judges are independent of the state and their decisions are taken and implemented in accordance with the law. Hearings in Omani court proceedings are open to the public unless the court decides of its own accord or at the request of an interested party to hold them in closed session for valid reasons. Regardless, in all cases the verdict must announced publicly. Case documents are confidential to the litigants. Arabic is the official language in the Omani courts and all pleadings must be in Arabic (with foreign language documents requiring translation by a licensed translator). While it is extremely rare for witnesses to be required to give evidence in court, the courts will hear evidence given through an interpreter where a non-Arabic witness is required.

Omani civil courts have departments divisions including civil, commercial, labour, taxation, family affairs and leases. The civil court system is organized in the following instances:

  • the First Instance Court (Primary Courti), which comprises of:
    • the court consisting of one judge, which has jurisdiction over all civil and commercial cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed OMR70,000, or if the dispute is subject to the Procedures Simplification Law (R.D 125/2020). Disputes are subject to the Procedures Simplification Law where it relates to foreign investment, lease contracts, individual labour contracts, construction and debt instruments. The court also oversees applications to issue orders to enforce the foreign judgments and arbitrate local or global judgments; and
    • the court consisting of three judges, which has jurisdiction over cases where the amount in dispute exceeds OMR70,000 and is in respect of the following areas:
      • bankruptcy and protective settlement;
      • liquidation of companies;
      • intellectual property and patents; and
      • dealings with securities.
  • the Second Instant Court (Court of Appeal), hears appeals filed against judgments issued by the Primary Court, except where judgments are less than OMR1,000, or less than OMR2,000 (if the dispute is subject to the Procedures Simplification Law). In addition, the Court of Appeal hears the application for nullifying arbitration judgments.
  • the Supreme Court is the ultimate court of appeal in Oman. It hears appeals filed against judgments issued by the Court of Appeal excluding disputes subject to the Procedures Simplification Law which are considered as final unless the dispute concerns foreign investment and exceeds OMR150,000.

 In addition, there is a Settlement Committee working under the Supreme Judiciary Council’s supervision, and a Settlement Department at the Ministry of Labour. Settlements signed before these are enforceable and not subject to appeal. There is a new Arbitration Committee at the Ministry of Labour for collective labour disputes.

Last modified 1 Dec 2023

Poland

Poland

The Polish legal system is codified and part of the civil law tradition. The main statute which governs civil proceedings in Poland is the Civil Procedure Code (CPC), which applies to proceedings before the common courts. As Poland is a member of the EU, EU law is fully implemented in Poland and the courts are required to apply EU regulations directly.

Judicial authority in Poland is exercised by courts (the Supreme Court, common courts and administrative courts) and tribunals (the Constitutional Tribunal and the Tribunal of State). Common courts exercise general jurisdiction in almost all civil and criminal matters and comprise the following:

  • district courts (with jurisdiction to hear small cases at first instance);
  • regional courts (which hear cases at first instance with a value exceeding PLN100,000 (c. EUR22,500) and appeals from district courts) and some listed categories of cases; and
  • appeal courts (which hear appeals from regional courts).

The common courts have civil, criminal, commercial, labor, companies registry and bankruptcy divisions. The Supreme Court is primarily a court of cassation which reviews second instance judgments on an extraordinary basis (i.e. it will only interpret the relevant law and not re-examine the facts of a case).

With the exception of certain judgments of the Supreme Court, judgments do not generally create binding precedents. However, judgments in similar cases, in particular those given by the Supreme Court, may be relied upon by the courts in support of their decisions.

Litigation is possible only in Polish. All documents in foreign languages that constitute evidence should be translated by a sworn translator. Witnesses who do not speak Polish are assisted by a translator.

Last modified 2 Oct 2023

Portugal

Portugal

Portugal is a civil law jurisdiction. The Portuguese courts operate principally under the Portuguese Civil Code (the Code) and Civil Procedural Code (the Procedural Code), and the primary sources of law are laws and customary rules (as provided for in Article 348 of the Code and based on a social practice with a strong conviction of legality).

The Portuguese civil court system is organized into a three-tier structure:

  • Courts of First Instance (District Courts) – for all initial claims irrespective of the claimed amount;
  • Courts of Appeal (Tribunais da Relação) – in general, an appeal to these courts is admissible if the value of the claim is higher than EUR5,000 and the decision is unfavourable to the appealing party in an amount higher than EUR2,500; and
  • The Supreme Court of Justice – an appeal to this court is only admissible under certain circumstances (namely, where the value of the case is higher than EUR30,000 and the decision is unfavourable to the appealing party in an amount which is higher than EUR15,000).

Outside of this system, there is also the Constitutional Court. An appeal can be submitted to the Constitutional Court in specific situations to argue the unconstitutionality of a specific interpretation of a provision of law applied in a particular case.

The Constitutional Court only determines matters directly related to the interpretation and applicability of constitutional provisions. On the other hand, the Supreme Court decides on matters of law in general (but excluding any review of facts deemed proven).

The Portuguese legal system does not employ the rule of precedent. As such, the court will decide each claim before it relying solely on what has been prescribed by law. However, arguments based on case law/jurisprudence can be persuasive and are often used to reinforce legal arguments in written pleadings, along with doctrine.

Courts are not obliged to follow previous court rulings, unless the previous decision is one of the Supreme Court of Justice with standardisation of jurisprudence over a specific legal interpretation, as explained in the Appeals section below.

Rules on jurisdiction determine in which Court of First Instance a particular case should be filed. Should a case be appealed, the territorial jurisdiction of the presiding Court of Appeal will depend on the location of the Court of First Instance that issued the decision being appealed.

First Instance Courts are, in general, District Courts, which are divided into:

  • Courts with general jurisdiction; and
  • Courts with specialised jurisdiction, which may fall into one of the following categories:
    • Central Civil;
    • Local Civil;
    • Central Criminal;
    • Local Criminal;
    • Local Petty Criminal;
    • Criminal Investigation;
    • Family and Minors;
    • Labor;
    • Commerce; and
    • Enforcement.

In addition to District Courts, there are also Courts of Extended Territorial Jurisdiction, which have jurisdiction over more than one district or over areas specifically referred to by law. These courts deal with specific matters, regardless of the applicable form of procedure. In particular, the Courts of Extended Territorial Jurisdiction are:

  • The Intellectual Property Court;
  • The Competition, Regulatory and Supervisory Court;
  • The Maritime Court;
  • The Court of Penalties Enforcement; and
  • The Central Court of Criminal Instruction.

According to Article 133 of the Procedural Code, Portuguese is the mandatory language of the courts, and all judicial documents and oral hearings must be in Portuguese. If there are documents or testimonies in another language, an official translator must be appointed by the court.

Last modified 22 Sep 2023

Qatar

Qatar

Qatar's courts operate under a civil law legal system. Qatar's legal system is rooted in the Napoleonic Code which was adopted (via the Arab Civil Code) by many countries in the Middle East. Judges are independent of the state and their decisions are taken and implemented in accordance with the law. Hearings in Qatari court proceedings are open to the public unless the court decides of its own accord or at the request of an interested party to hold them in closed session. Case documents, however, are confidential to the litigants. Arabic is the official language in the Qatari courts and all pleadings must be in Arabic (with foreign language documents requiring translation by a court approved translator). While it is extremely rare for witnesses to be required to give evidence in court, the courts will hear evidence given through an interpreter where the evidence of a non-Arabic witness is required.

Qatari civil courts (the Civil Court) have jurisdiction over civil matters, while the commercial matters including corporate, banking, construction and maritime matters are heard and decided before the Investment and Trade Court (the Investment Court). The Investment Court is organized in the following instances:

  • the First Instance Court, which comprises:
    • the Lower Investment Court, which hears and decides on all civil and commercial cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed the sum of QAR10,000,000 (c. USD2,747,250);
    • the Higher Investment Court, which hears and decides cases where the amount in dispute exceeds QAR10,000,000; and
    • It also acts as an appellate court, hearing appeals against judgment issued by the Lower Investment Court.
  • the Court of Appeal, which hears appeals filed against judgments issued by the Higher Investment Court; and
  • the Court of Cassation, which is the ultimate court of appeal in Qatar, and hears appeals filed against judgments issued by the Court of Appeal or the Higher Investment Court, acting as an appellate court.

In addition, there are a number of specialist tribunals. Judgments issued by these specialist tribunals can be appealed to the Court of Appeal within the Civil Court.

Parties doing business in Qatar should also be aware of the Qatar Financial Centre (a business and financial center located in Doha) which, as a part of its business-friendly environment, provides an alternative judiciary in the form of the Qatar International Court (QIC) with respect to disputes arising between entities established within the QFC or between QFC entities and parties outside of the QFC. The QIC, which has a bench formed of internationally renowned common law judges, is designed to hear cases quickly and efficiently. Parties with disputes in Qatar should therefore consider making use of this more modern alternative to Qatari court litigation, if applicable to them.

Last modified 11 Dec 2023

Romania

Romania

The Romanian legal system follows a civil law system. The courts of law are organized hierarchically as follows:

  • Courts of first instance (covering the geographic spread of the relevant cities in the country);
  • Tribunals (42 tribunals - one in each county plus Bucharest);
  • The Courts of Appeal (15 courts); and
  • The High Court of Justice (the highest court in the judicial system).

There is also a Constitutional Court to settle conflicts between public authorities and generally safeguard the Romanian Constitution. The Constitutional Court is not considered part of the judiciary, but rather as a separate and distinct public authority.

Trials are only conducted in Romanian. In the case of a foreign party, the presence of an interpreter is mandatory. The lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts.

Last modified 27 Oct 2023

Russia

Russia

Russia is a civil law jurisdiction and its judicial system consists of three main court branches:

  • state commercial (Arbitrazh) courts. These courts resolve commercial, civil and administrative disputes between legal entities or entrepreneurs and have exclusive jurisdiction over certain types of disputes (e.g. corporate and bankruptcy matters). For a creditor of a Russian debtor, proceedings in state commercial courts are usually the preferred option (as compared to litigation in foreign courts or arbitration). The process is reasonably straightforward, fast and cost effective;
  • courts of general jurisdiction. These courts adjudicate:
    • civil non-commercial disputes;
    • criminal cases; and
    • administrative cases, which do not arise from commercial activities of companies (e.g. violations of fire safety, labor regulations etc.); and
  • constitutional courts. These courts resolve issues regarding the constitutionality of laws and treaties.

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority for state commercial courts and courts of general jurisdiction.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a civil law jurisdiction that is based on Islamic law, otherwise known as Sharia law. Sharia law, as applied in Saudi Arabia, is not a single codified system of law, nor has it a single code of interpretation in line with Sharia principles. Rather, its laws and principles can vary between the different schools of thought of Islamic law. There are four major schools: Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’I, and Maliki, and Saudi courts and judicial committees generally apply the interpretation of the Hanbali School. The Saudi government, from time to time, issues laws, rules, and regulations with the objective of supplementing Islamic law. In the event of a conflict between Islamic law and government rules and regulations, Islamic law will generally prevail. Sharia law applies in relation to civil and non-codified criminal matters. Other aspects of law, such as commerce, government matters, finance, labour and investment are governed by several statutes and codes.

Saudi Arabia does not have a system of binding judicial precedents, meaning that the courts do not have to follow the earlier decisions of other courts or authorities. Judicial precedents are merely persuasive sources rather than being binding on judges or arbitrations when making their decisions. Therefore, a very broad discretion is given to judges and arbitrators to state, interpret, and apply the principles of Sharia law, rather than considering one single codified law. There is also no comprehensive system of reporting cases in Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi judiciary publishes from time to time "judicial principles" that may operate as authoritative rules to be followed by judges in concluding their judgments.

All proceedings are conducted in Arabic and all non-Arabic documents must be translated.

The court structure in Saudi Arabia is divided into two main branches:

  • first, there is the public judiciary which is supervised by the Supreme Judicial Council. The public judiciary includes: (i) First Instance Courts; (ii) The Court of Appeal; and (iii) the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is not yet fully functional and therefore it is not currently reviewing all types of cases. To date, it is only reviewing commercial cases and serious criminal cases, carrying severe sentences (e.g. death penalty). The First Instance Courts are divided into sub-categories of specialist court which include the General Courts, Commercial Courts, Penal Courts, Labour Courts and Personal Status Courts.
  • secondly, there is the administrative judiciary (Board of Grievances). This includes: (i) First Instance Administrative  Courts; (ii) Courts of Administrative Appeal; and (iii) the Administrative Supreme Court. These courts include Disciplinary Circuits and Administrative Circuits. 

Alongside the two main judicial branches, there is also a semi-judicial branch which examines specific specialized disputes. These consist of various judicial committees within government ministries, such as:

  • the Committees for Resolution of Securities Disputes;
  • the Zakat & Tax Dispute Committee; and 
  • the Banking Disputes Settlement Committee.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Singapore

Singapore

Singapore’s legal system is based on the English common law legal system. The four main sources of law are the Singapore Constitution, written laws made by Parliament (Acts of Parliament and subsidiary legislation) and judge-made law. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, which takes precedence over both written laws by Parliament and judge-made law. Written laws by Parliament likewise take precedence over judge-made law. 

The court system comprises the Supreme Court, the State Courts and the Family Justice Courts:

  • The State Courts consist of the District Court, the Magistrate’s Court, the Coroners Court and the Small Claims Tribunal. The State Courts are subordinate to the Supreme Court.
    • The Magistrate’s Court hear civil claims of up to SGD60,000, while the District Court hear civil claims of up to SGD250,000;
    • The Small Claims Tribunal hears civil claims of up to SGD10,000, which may be raised to SGD20,000 with the written consent of all parties; and
    • The Coroner’s Court investigates cases where a person has died in a sudden or unnatural manner, by violence, when the cause of death is unknown and in situations where the law requires an inquiry.
  • The Supreme Court consist of the Court of Appeal, High Court (General Division and Appellant Division) and Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC).
    • The General Division of the High Court hears civil cases in the first instance where the claim sum exceeds SGD250,000 and cases on appeal from the State Courts;
    • The Appellate Division of the High Court hears civil appeals apart from those prescribed under the Sixth Schedule of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969 (SCJA);
    • The Court of Appeal is the final court of appeal and hears civil appeals from the High Court. Court of Appeal hearings are usually presided by three Judges; and
    • The SICC deals with transnational commercial disputes, which are heard by specialist local and international Judges.
  • The Family Justice Courts consist of the Family Division of the High Court, the Family Courts and the Youth Courts.

A number of specialised tribunals and courts operate in Singapore, including the Syariah Court, Employment Claims Tribunal, the Industrial Arbitration Court, Protection from Harassment Court, and the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

Singapore's main sources of law include the Constitution, Acts of Parliament, subsidiary legislation and case law. Lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts: the Court of Appeal is not bound by its own decisions; the High Court is bound by the decisions of the Court of Appeal but not its own prior decisions; the State Courts are bound by the decisions of the Court of Appeal and the High Court. English and other Commonwealth decisions are persuasive, but not binding on the Singapore courts.

All court proceedings in Singapore are conducted in English, although the courts provide in-house interpretation services for parties who do not speak or are not comfortable communicating in the English language.

Last modified 2 Oct 2023

Slovakia

Slovakia

Slovakia is a civil law jurisdiction, with its courts operating under codified statutes (for example, the Civil Procedure Code). Accordingly, Slovak courts primarily determine cases by considering the principles and rules codified in the Civil Procedure Code and other codified laws, although precedents are often used by parties to strengthen their case. Whilst litigants have the right to address the court in their native language, litigation is only conducted in the Slovak language. Where appropriate, courts will appoint an interpreter to ensure that litigants have an equal opportunity to exercise their rights.

Judicial power in the Slovak Republic is exercised by the general courts, administrative courts and the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic.

General courts have jurisdiction to preside over civil, commercial and criminal cases, as well as cases in which the Slovak Republic has binding jurisdiction under European Union law or international treaties. The system of general courts is made up of the following courts:

  • Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic;
  • Regional Courts (8);
  • District Courts (31);
  • City Courts (5); and
  • specialized Criminal Court.

Most cases heard by the general courts are decided by a single judge in a District Court or City Court. However, as described more fully below, if a party disagrees with a first-instance decision, the case may be appealed to an appellate court (Regional Court). If a further appeal is deemed necessary, then, assuming the relevant legal thresholds have been met, an extraordinary remedy may be filed to the Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic. Decisions before the Regional Court or Supreme Court are heard before a panel or (in the case of the Supreme Court) a grand chamber. A panel consists of the president and two judges. A grand chamber consists of the president of the grand chamber and six judges.

By contrast, the administrative courts determine actions or appeals against decisions, interventions, other measures or inaction by administrative and judicial authorities. In respect of public administration, this includes ruling on referendum matters and issues concerning political parties and movements. The administrative courts are comprised of the following court:

  • Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic; and
  • Administrative Courts (3).

Within the general and administrative court systems, the Supreme Court only deals with matters concerning due legal process. The Supreme Court will accept the lower court’s factual findings, only investigating whether the law has been correctly applied to those facts. Furthermore, Supreme Court rulings serve as a guideline to the lower courts.

If all the above remedies have been exhausted, a constitutional complaint may be filed before the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic challenging the alleged breach of the complainant’s constitutional rights.

Last modified 1 Jun 2023

South Africa

South Africa

South Africa has a mixed common law system and is influenced by other legal systems such as Roman-Dutch civil law and English common law. Legislation and customary laws (including indigenous law) are also applied. Since South Africa adheres to constitutional supremacy, all law, regardless of origin, is subject to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Constitution).

There are multiple sources of South African law, including:

  • the Constitution;
  • legislation (statutes);
  • precedent (court decisions);
  • common law; and
  • indigenous law.

The Constitution sets out the hierarchical structure of the South African court system as follows:

  • The Constitutional Court (the apex court);
  • The Supreme Court of Appeal;
  • The High Courts;
  • The Magistrates’ Courts consisting of the Regional and District Courts; and
  • Any other court established or recognised in an Act of Parliament, including any court of a status similar to either the High Courts or the Magistrates’ Courts.

The principle of stare decisis is a juridical command to the courts to respect previous decisions with similar facts and legal issues. The practical application of the principle of stare decisis is that each court is bound by its previous judicial decisions, as well as decisions of the courts superior to them. Courts are enjoined to promote the Bill of Rights in the Constitution when interpreting legislation or developing the common law.

South Africa has various specialised courts, which include, inter alia, the:

  • Special Income Tax Court;
  • Competition Appeal Court;
  • Commercial Court;
  • Labour Courts and Labour Appeal Courts; and
  • Equality Courts.

South Africa has 12 official languages. Notwithstanding this, English has been decreed to be the language of record in the South African courts. Witnesses in court proceedings are permitted to testify in their preferred language and the Uniform Rules of Court make provision for translators. Documents in a language other than English may be used in civil proceedings, provided that the document is accompanied by a sworn translation in accordance with the terms of the Uniform Rules of Court. 

South Africa’s trial system and procedures are typically adversarial. Cases will be heard by judges, who are either previous attorneys or advocates. It is not compulsory to have legal representation and parties may conduct their own cases in court.

The Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court is South Africa’s highest court - its decisions cannot be varied by any other court. It decides constitutional matters and issues connected to decisions on constitutional matters (such as an appeal granted by the Constitutional Court which involves an arguable point of law of general or public importance). A constitutional matter includes any issue involving the interpretation, protection or enforcement of the Constitution.

A matter may be brought directly to the Constitutional Court or appealed to the Constitutional Court from another court. To do this, leave to appeal must be granted by the Constitutional Court.

The Supreme Court of Appeal

The Supreme Court of Appeal decides appeals except in labour and competition matters (which are decided by specialised appeal courts). Appeals to the Supreme Court of Appeal emanate from the High Court of South Africa or a court of a similar status to the High Court.

The High Court

The High Court of South Africa consists of nine divisions. Each division has jurisdiction over a defined geographical area, containing any part of one or more of the provinces of South Africa. Each division also has a main seat and one or more local seats. A local seat has its exclusive area of jurisdiction, but the main seat has concurrent appeal jurisdiction over a local seat.

The High Court can hear any matter, including appeals or reviews from the Magistrates’ Courts. A civil matter heard by a court of first instance (which includes the Magistrates’ Court and the High Court) is usually presided over by a single judge or magistrate. Alternatively, the number of judges hearing a criminal case is determined by the specific law relating to criminal procedure. Any High Court matter may be heard by a court consisting of a full bench of not more than three judges.

The Magistrates Courts

Magistrates’ Courts consist of District Courts and Regional Courts. The District Courts hear limited types of civil cases. For example, they cannot deal with certain matters such as matters relating to status, or matters where the monetary value exceeds ZAR200,000.00.

Regional Courts hear civil matters with a monetary value of over ZAR200,000.00, but up to and including ZAR400,000.00. The civil matters that the Magistrates’ Courts hear include:

  • delivery or transfer of any property, movable or immovable;
  • ejectment against the occupier of any premises or land;
  • matters arising from a mortgage bond;
  • matters arising out of a credit agreement; and
  • certain other matters not already set out above, such as claims for damages caused negligently to a vehicle or injuries to a person.

Last modified 18 Aug 2023

South Korea

South Korea

South Korea has a civil law system with procedures similar to those in other civil law jurisdictions such as Germany, France and Japan. In South Korea, the Constitution is the highest source of law, and the Korean Civil Code takes precedence over case law.

Lower courts are not bound by the decisions of higher courts but lower courts will follow the decisions of higher courts as long as the facts and issues are similar.

The sources of law in South Korea include the following:

  • The Constitution;
  • Statutes passed by the National Assembly;
  • Presidential decrees; and
  • Ordinances issued by the head of each executive ministry.

South Korea has a single judicial system with three levels:

  • Courts of First Instance
  • Appellate Courts; and
  • The Supreme Court.

South Korea has various specialized courts that serve either as Courts of First Instance or Appellate Courts.

The Courts of First Instance include, inter alia, the:

  • Family Court;
  • Administrative Court; and
  • Constitutional Court.

There are no specialized commercial courts in Korea, as commercial cases are treated as ordinary civil cases. To improve the efficiency of court proceedings, some courts have assigned panels of judges to manage complex disputes related to international transactions, securities, construction, human resources and the environment.

The appellate courts include, inter alia, the:

  • Patent Court, which reviews decisions made by the Intellectual Property Trial Board; and
  • High Court, which reviews decisions made by the Korean Fair Trade Commission.

All of the proceedings before the aforementioned courts are conducted in the Korean language.

Last modified 18 Oct 2023

Spain

Spain

Spain is a civil law jurisdiction with numerous courts. In broad terms, the civil court system is divided into the following:

  • first instance courts, courts of peace and certain specialized courts (including commercial courts);
  • provincial courts, which hear appeals filed against the judgments of the first instance and commercial courts; and
  • either:
    • High Courts of Justice, which have jurisdiction over appeals filed against the judgments of Provincial Courts on applicable regional civil law (e.g., High Court of Justice of Catalonia hears appeals from the Provincial Courts in Catalonia on matters relating to Catalan civil law); or
    • the First Chamber of the Supreme Court, which hears appeals from the Provincial Courts in cases of national civil law.

As for case law, it does not take precedence over codified statutes, though the case law of the Supreme Court, also referred to as doctrine, binds all lower courts. Further, as a member of the EU, all Spanish courts are bound by the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The sources of law in Spain are legislation, customary law (consuetudinary) and the general principles of law. Despite its importance, case law is not considered a source. Litigation only takes place in Spanish (or, less commonly, in other co-official languages such as Catalan, Valencian, Galician or Basque).

Last modified 20 Jul 2023

Sweden

Sweden

Sweden has a civil law tradition. There are three levels of civil courts in Sweden:

  • District Courts;
  • Courts of Appeal; and
  • the Supreme Court.

Which District Court has jurisdiction to hear a dispute usually depends on the domicile of the defendant, but other criteria may apply depending on the type of dispute (e.g. in real estate disputes and consumer disputes).

Last modified 18 Oct 2023

Thailand

Thailand

Thailand is predominantly a civil law jurisdiction but can be seen as a hybrid with influences from many legal systems, including the common law. As Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the Constitution is regarded as supreme and thus, prevails over other laws.

The principal sources of Thai Law include:

  • The Constitution of Thailand (the Constitution);
  • Codified laws: four codes encompass the fundamental laws of the country, which are the Civil and Commercial Code, the Penal Code, the Civil Procedure Code and the Criminal Procedure Code;
  • Acts, Treaties and Administration of Laws; and
  • Judicial Decisions: not binding but in practice, the decisions of the Supreme Court of Justice are persuasive on itself and on lower courts.

The Constitution expressly sets out four types of courts:

  1. The Constitutional Court of the Kingdom of Thailand;
  2. The Courts of Justice;
  3. The Administrative Courts; and
  4. The Military Courts.

 The Courts of Justice has a three-tier system, being (in order of seniority):

  • the Court of First Instance (including Civil Court, Municipal Court, Courts of First Instance for Specialized Cases such as Central Intellectual Property & International Trade Court, Central Tax Court, Central Bankruptcy Court, Central Labour Court and Criminal Court, each of which has jurisdictions over specific types of cases);
  • the Court of Appeal (including a Court of Appeal for Specialized Cases); and
  • the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, Thailand does not have a jury system. A judge decides the outcome of a case based on the representations made by the parties. Litigation in the Thai Courts can only be conducted in the Thai language. Thus, any evidence for instance, documentary or otherwise, must be translated prior to submission to the court.

Last modified 8 Nov 2023

UK - England & Wales UK - England & Wales

UK - England & Wales

The UK has three distinct legal jurisdictions:

  • England and Wales;
  • Scotland; and
  • Northern Ireland.

Each jurisdiction has its own legal system, distinct history and origins. There is no concept of UK law.

England and Wales civil system is a common law jurisdiction, where case law (in the form of published judicial decisions) is of primary importance. The court system in England and Wales provides an effective, relatively efficient and reliable process for dispute resolution which makes it one of (if not the) most popular jurisdiction in the world.

Most commercial cases start in the High Court. This is made up of three divisions: Queen's Bench; Chancery; and Family. The Queen's Bench division contains a number of specialist courts, namely the Admiralty, Commercial, Circuit Commercial (formerly Mercantile), Technology and Construction, Administrative and Planning Courts and the Queen's Bench Civil Lists. The Chancery Division deals with company law, partnership claims, conveyancing, land law, probate, patent and taxation cases. The Chancery division also includes three specialist courts: the Insolvency and Companies Court; the Patents Court; and the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC). The Financial List is a specialist list set up to handle claims related to the Financial Markets and operates as a joint initiative involving the Chancery Division and the Commercial Court, handling claims of GBP50 million or more which require particular expertise in the financial markets. The Business and Property Courts have also been set up as an umbrella bringing together the work of the Chancery Division and specialist courts of the Queen's Bench Divisions of the High Court. Judges allocated to a particular division or specialist court typically have specialist expertise in the legal disciplines which those courts deal with.

A number of separate tribunals operate alongside the courts and share their appeal system, such as the Employment Tribunal, which hears employment cases.

Appeals from the High Court are to the Court of Appeal then UK Supreme Court, which is the ultimate court of appeal in England and Wales (or, exceptionally, directly from the High Court to the Supreme Court).

Case management in civil cases in England and Wales is subject to procedural rules. For the most part, these rules are contained in the Civil Procedure Rules (known as the CPR) and accompanying Practice Directions. A number of the more specialized courts, such as the Commercial Court, also have their own rules and guidelines.

Last modified 30 Jan 2024

UK - Scotland

UK - Scotland

The UK, judicially, consists of three jurisdictions:

  • England and Wales;
  • Scotland; and
  • Northern Ireland.

There are important differences between all three jurisdictions. This report exclusively refers to the legal system in Scotland; Scots law.

Scots law is influenced by both civil law and common law, as it has characteristics of both approaches. Scots law consists of four sources of law: legislation, legal precedent, specific academic writings and custom. The doctrine of supremacy of Parliament means that legislation enacted by Parliament takes precedence over case law. However, case-law also interprets the meaning of legislation where it’s not clear. Decisions of higher courts are binding on lower courts.

The civil court system in Scotland is split between the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court which sits only in Edinburgh and where the most complex and valuable disputes are heard, and the Sheriff Courts, located in districts throughout Scotland and where lower level claims are determined. There are 39 Sheriff Courts in total.

The Court of Session is split into the Outer House (first instance) and Inner House (appeal) courts. A single judge, known as a Lord Ordinary, usually hears cases in the Outer House and a bench of three judges usually hears Inner House appeals. The Sheriff Courts are Scotland's local courts and are presided over by a single judge called the Sheriff. Appeals from the Sheriff Court are to the Sheriff Appeal Court or to the Inner House, with permission of the Sheriff Appeal Court. A final appeal is available from the Inner House to the UK Supreme Court.

Court proceedings are conducted in the English language, but litigants can ask the court to use Scots Gaelic, either to give evidence or make submissions. If the application is granted an interpreter will be provided by the court.

Disputes with a total value of over GBP100,000 may be started in either the Court of Session or the Sheriff Court. Disputes with a total value of up to GBP100,000 may only be commenced in the Sheriff Court.

Last modified 18 Oct 2023

United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates

The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) are financial free zones in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) established pursuant to Federal Laws of the UAE, specifically pursuant to the UAE Constitution and UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 2004 (Financial Free Zone Law).

The Financial Free Zone Law allows for the creation of independent jurisdictions within the UAE in that financial free zones established under the law are exempted from all civil and commercial laws of the UAE. However, they remain subject to the criminal laws of the Emirate in which they are established and the federal criminal laws of the UAE.

In this regard, the DIFC and ADGM (in relation to civil and commercial matters) each have their own legal and regulatory frameworks. The ADGM's legal framework is based on English law. The ADGM regulations adopt selected pieces of English legislation, including matters relating to contract, tort and trusts. By contrast, the DIFC has its own body of laws. DIFC law takes precedence, followed by the law of any jurisdiction other than that of the DIFC expressly chosen by the parties followed by a cascade which ultimately ends with English law. That said, in contractual disputes, the DIFC and ADGM courts should apply the chosen law of the parties.

The DIFC and ADGM each also have their own two-tier court system: the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. Furthermore, the DIFC and ADGM courts have their own rules of court procedure. These procedural rules are broadly based on the English Civil Procedure Rules.

The judges of the DIFC courts are a mix of UAE civil trained judges and judges from various common law jurisdictions including England, Australia and Singapore. The judges of the ADGM courts are from common law jurisdictions only.

The DIFC and ADGM, as jurisdictions, are colloquially referred to as being offshore as opposed to the onshore jurisdictions of each of the seven Emirates of the UAE.

It is worth highlighting that the DIFC and ADGM are young jurisdictions that are continuing to develop on a daily basis. Both jurisdictions were created and operate to provide an alternative forum for dispute resolution in the UAE. In doing so, both the DIFC and ADGM courts have needed to put in place a framework for the interaction of their jurisdiction with the onshore jurisdictions in the Emirates of their establishment and the wider UAE. To this effect, the DIFC and ADGM courts have entered into memoranda of understanding with various courts and jurisdictions, both in the UAE and abroad, which seek to establish processes for the mutual enforcement of judgments and orders.

In this regard, the current legal framework between the DIFC courts and the onshore Dubai courts allows a party to directly enforce a final judgment or order of the DIFC courts onshore in Dubai through the Dubai courts. This has led parties to seek to enforce arbitral awards (both local and foreign) and foreign judgments (including those which have no connection with the DIFC) in the Dubai courts by having them recognized and enforced by the DIFC courts first. This has led to arguments as to whether the DIFC can be used as a conduit jurisdiction for the enforcement of judgments onshore in Dubai in this way.

In addition, a Judicial Committee was formed in Dubai, seemingly as a result of this approach to enforcement. The committee is tasked with resolving conflicts of jurisdiction and judgments between the DIFC and Dubai courts. The committee is formed of three DIFC court judges, three onshore Dubai court judges and is chaired by the head of the Dubai Court of Cassation. The chair has the casting vote in cases of deadlock.

Last modified 1 Dec 2023

United States

United States

The analysis below describes the judicial system and practices in the federal courts of the US as well as most state courts. There are numerous deviations from the prevailing approach that vary by state.

The US has a federal system of government that is divided into three branches:

  • the legislative branch;
  • the executive branch; and
  • the judicial branch.

The federal judicial branch is divided into three levels of courts: (i) the U.S. Supreme Court, (ii) 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals; and (iii) U.S. District Courts. The federal judicial system operates under a common law system.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Few cases originate in the U.S. Supreme Court; the court instead primarily acts as an appellate court for decisions originating in the lower courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has discretion to hear appeals from the Courts of Appeals and typically accepts between 100 and 150 cases per year out of thousands it is asked to review. Nine justices appointed to lifetime terms rule on these cases after receiving written submissions and hearing oral argument.

13 appellate courts, called the U.S. Courts of Appeals, sit below the U.S. Supreme Court. The United States is geographically divided into 94 judicial districts, which in turn are grouped into 12 regional circuits, each of which has its own U.S. Court of Appeals. The U.S. Courts of Appeals generally review the decisions of the U.S. District Courts and federal agencies within their circuits to determine whether the law was correctly applied. In addition to the 12 regional circuits defined geographically, there is one specialized U.S. Court of Appeal—the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals—which has nationwide jurisdiction over certain subject matters, consisting largely of patent and administrative law matters. U.S. Courts of Appeals decisions typically are made by a panel of three judges appointed to lifetime terms.

The United States has 94 federal trial courts, called the U.S. District Courts, corresponding to the 94 judicial districts. There is at least one U.S. District Court in each state. Decisions in the U.S. District Courts are usually made by one of the judges assigned to that district; as with U.S. Supreme Court justices and U.S. Courts of Appeals judges, U.S. District Court judges are appointed to lifetime terms. U.S. District Court judges can rule on both civil and criminal cases, but generally only do so in cases that involve questions of federal law or disputes between citizens of different states. The vast majority of disputes are instead heard by state courts.

Each of the 50 states has its own court system that operates separately from the federal system. Most states have structures similar to the federal courts, with trial courts assigned to particular geographic areas (usually at the county level), one or more intermediate appellate courts, and a state supreme court. In most states, the state supreme court has discretion to hear appeals from the intermediate appellate courts. Delaware is a notable exception; while the state hears many important business disputes, due to its small size has no intermediate appellate court. The state supreme courts are the final arbiters of the laws of their state absent the existence of a federal issue (for example, alleged unconstitutionality of a state statute). Thus, there are certain limited instances when an issue decided by a state supreme court may be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. All but one state operates under a common law system. The exception is the state of Louisiana, which is a civil law jurisdiction (primarily derived from the French Napoleonic code with some common law influences).

Notable state variations:

  • Delaware: No intermediate appellate court exists in Delaware, due to its relatively small size. All appeals are heard by the Delaware Supreme Court as a matter of right.

Last modified 22 Sep 2023

Australia’s courts operate under the common law legal system. Australia has a federal system of government, with legislative power divided between the federal branch of government and six state and two territory governments (for ease, we refer collectively to the states and territories as the state or states). Australia’s courts are similarly divided into eight separate state jurisdictions and a federal jurisdiction, which each operate on a parallel but independent hierarchy of courts. Lower courts are bound by previous decisions made by higher courts in the same hierarchy. Decisions made by higher courts are persuasive, but not binding, on lower courts in a different hierarchy (for example, decisions made by the Federal Court do not bind a state District Court).

State and federal courts broadly have jurisdiction over the application of legislation enacted by the state and federal parliaments respectively. The High Court of Australia is the ultimate court of appeal in Australia for all court systems. There are also tribunals created by specific legislation under state and federal jurisdictions. Courts often have jurisdictional limits as to the types of matters, and quantum in dispute, that they will hear. A dispute over a small quantum cannot be commenced, at first instance, before a state Supreme Court.

Australia’s official language is English. All Court proceedings will be conducted in English and judgments will be delivered in English.

In each state or territory of Australia, specific legislation imposes a time period before the end of which proceedings must be commenced for a claim or dispute.

The specific legislation is:

  • Limitation Act 1985 (ACT)
  • Limitation Act 1981 (NT)
  • Limitation Act 1969 (NSW)
  • Limitation of Actions Act 1974 (QLD)
  • Limitation of Actions Act 1936 (SA)
  • Limitation Act 1974 (TAS)
  • Limitation of Actions Act 1958 (VIC)
  • Limitation Act 2005 (WA)

These time periods vary from state to state and depend upon the type of claim. A failure to issue proceedings before the relevant time period expires is likely to result in that claim becoming time barred.

In most Australian states, actions in simple contract or tort must be brought within six years of either the date of breach (contract) or the date on which loss was incurred (tort).

The limitation period may be extended in some circumstances, for example where someone with legal incapacity (such as a minor or a person of unsound mind) has entered into a contract. Some jurisdictions also permit for the limitation period to be extended at the court’s discretion.

The process of litigation is broadly similar across Australian courts. Proceedings are initiated by a claim or application, which must be filed in the relevant court and by the initiating party on all parties to the proceeding. Parties will then exchange pleadings (such as statements of claim, defences, counterclaims, and replies) which define the parameters of the dispute between the parties and the specific issues which are to be proved by each party. Timeframes for the progression of litigation are found in the civil procedure rules applicable in each jurisdiction. Generally, a defence must be filed within 28 days of service of a statement of claim.

For proceedings in the Federal Court, parties are required to file a genuine steps statement, which outlines the steps taken to make a sincere and genuine attempt to resolve the dispute prior to commencing litigation. Superior courts in the states may also require a party to litigation to provide details of attempts made to resolve a dispute before proceedings were commenced.

Once the exchange of pleadings is complete, parties will generally undertake the discovery (also known as the disclosure) process, and then go on to prepare their evidence for a final hearing of the dispute. It is common, particularly in complex litigation, for the parties to be obliged to attend court at regular intervals for directions hearings, in which orders are given to manage the conduct and timeframes of the case up until its final hearing.

Timeframes for each stage of proceedings vary greatly with the complexity and case management style of an individual matter and the specific jurisdiction in which the case is commenced. Each superior court in the states has in place specific practice notes or directions for the conduct of commercial disputes with the aim of ensuring that those commercial disputes are resolved in the most cost-effective and time-efficient manner possible. Generally, across all jurisdictions, parties will have 28 days from receipt of a claim to put on a defence. As noted above, the timetable from that point of time will depend on the nature of the dispute.

A straightforward commercial contract dispute will normally, court resources permitting, be resolved within 12 months.

Most state and federal courts require a corporate entity to be represented by a lawyer (which could include a lawyer employed by a company). Some jurisdictions dealing with small claims/employment issues may allow a company to appear by its director. Individuals may appear on their own behalf in most jurisdictions without a lawyer.

In Australia, the discovery process is designed to allow parties to civil litigation to obtain from an opponent all documents relevant to the issues in dispute. Australian courts strictly prohibit “fishing expeditions” through discovery. Discovery is usually undertaken after the close of pleadings (although in some courts in some states this may not be permitted until after evidence is complete) when the points of dispute between the parties have crystallized. Discovery may however be ordered, in limited circumstances, prior to the commencement of proceedings where an applicant is able to satisfy the court that he or she needs to obtain discovery in order to find out whether or not a cause of action exists against a potential defendant.

The practice of disclosure varies between those jurisdictions which mandate a general right of discovery and those in which the right is more limited. In the Northern Territory and the states of South Australia and Queensland, parties have a mandatory duty of disclosure which is discharged by the exchange of lists or copies of discoverable documents. In Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, a party may, by written notice to another party, require that party to make general discovery. In the Federal Court of Australia and New South Wales, the right to discovery is limited and requires an order of the court and will usually be limited to specific categories.

There have been recent attempts by some of the states’ superior courts to more tightly control the disclosure process. For example, the preparation of disclosure plans (which identify the categories of documents to be disclosed and how they will be disclosed), and the courts ordering that discovery being provided after the exchange of written evidence with a view to limiting the number of documents to be exchanged.

In the Federal Court and most state courts, discovery can be ordered to be made by non-parties to the dispute where the court is satisfied as to the likelihood of the non-party having relevant documents. Courts in Australia will also generally permit the issuing of subpoenas to produce documents to non-parties to litigation and this process will be more straightforward than seeking non-party disclosure orders.

Default judgment can be applied for in proceedings in any court where a defendant does not:

  • file a defence within the specified timeframe after a statement of claim has been served; or
  • fails to make an appearance at a hearing.

A default judgment is not a judgment on the merits of the claim, but rather a sanction for a party’s failure to comply with the rules or orders of the Court. Once a default judgment is ordered against a defendant, a defendant can, in limited circumstances, seek to challenge the granting of that default judgment. The defendant will need to file an application or motion to set aside the default judgment within a specified period of time and show cause for why (usually lack of notice of the claim or that notice was given of intent to defend but that notice was not brought to the attention of the court which granted the default judgment) the judgment should be set aside.

Judgments of civil courts in Australia can be appealed to a superior court. An appeal does not suspend the effect of the judgment being appealed, except in so far as a court having jurisdiction in the matter may direct. Civil procedure legislation in each jurisdiction sets out the rules and procedure for appeals. Ordinarily, it will be necessary to seek leave from the superior court to appeal. The Court of Appeal in each state, and the Full Federal Court, are the ultimate courts of appeal for each of those jurisdictions. Cases that emanate from the Federal Circuit Court are appealable to the Federal Court and then the Full Federal Court, whereas matters emanating from a State Magistrates Court are appealable to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Decisions made by the District Court (County Court in certain states) are appealable to the Supreme Court and decisions of the Supreme Court can be appealed to the state’s Court of Appeal. The High Court of Australia hears appeals from courts of appeal (sometimes referred to as the full court) in all jurisdictions, and has limited original jurisdiction (which predominantly relates to constitutional matters).

Parties generally, depending on the jurisdiction, have 28 days from the date of judgment or final order, to lodge an appeal in a civil matter to the relevant appeal court. Appeals will generally, because of the limitation of introducing new evidence in most civil appeals, be resolved more quickly than matters at first instance. Most appeals of civil matters will be heard and judgment given within six to eight months from commencement of the appeal.

All superior Australian courts have a wide power and discretion to grant both interlocutory orders and interlocutory injunctions. An interlocutory application, generally speaking, is an application which seeks any order other than a final judgment.

As in other jurisdictions, interlocutory injunctions are a species of interlocutory orders. Where those orders are sought on an urgent and temporary basis until a more extended form of relief is sought, they are often referred to as interim orders.

Interlocutory orders (including interlocutory injunctions) can require a party to undertake or refrain from a particular act, and can be granted before proceedings have commenced, once they are on foot and after judgment has been entered. Applications for these types of orders may be made by self-represented litigants or through legal representation.

The categories of non-urgent interlocutory orders that an applicant may seek are many and varied and include, by way of example, applications for security for costs, discovery (including preliminary discovery before proceedings have been commenced), the filing of expert evidence or orders for particulars. The evidence required to obtain non-urgent interlocutory orders will turn on the type of orders sought, although at the very least substantive interlocutory applications usually require a sworn affidavit to be filed.

The kinds of relief that can be sought by way of an urgent interlocutory injunction are equally varied. This is because the orders have the purpose of preserving the status quo until the rights of the parties can be determined finally, and the types of matters that can be heard by the court are vast. Common urgent interlocutory injunctions include applications for the preservation of property, the freezing of assets and applications to search premises to preserve evidence.

An applicant for an interlocutory injunction (either urgent or not) must prove that:

  • there is a serious question of law to be tried;
  • the balance of convenience favours the granting of the injunction; and
  • an award of damages (at the conclusion of the proceeding) would not be an adequate remedy.

It is possible for urgent interlocutory injunction applications to be heard by the court ex parte, without the opposing party's involvement. Any orders given ex parte will generally operate only for a limited period of time until the matter can be brought to a hearing. The duration of any ex parte order will ordinarily be limited to a period terminating on the return date of the summons, which should be as early as practicable (usually not more than a day or two) after the order was made, when the respondent will have the opportunity to be heard. For this reason appeals of ex parte interlocutory injunctions are not usually made to a superior court. The applicant will then bear the onus of satisfying the court that the order should be continued or renewed. A party seeking an interlocutory injunction will ordinarily be obliged to give an undertaking to pay any damages by the defendant suffered as a result of the injunction in the event that the claim for final relief at trial fails.

The decision to grant an interlocutory injunction can be on an urgent basis to a relevant appeal court. The appeal court will usually list the matter before a single judge to assess the urgency (often the same or the day following the day on which the appeal is lodged) and set a timetable based on the information provided at that first listing.

 

 

Australian state and federal courts can grant interim freezing orders, which restrain a defendant from disposing of property prior to judgment. These orders are a species of interlocutory orders. Such applications may be filed at the Supreme Court or Federal Court. A freezing order is normally obtained ex parte without notice to the respondent, before service of the originating process, because notice or service may prompt the feared dissipation or dealing with assets. A freezing order or an ancillary order may be limited to assets in Australia or in a defined part of Australia, or may extend to assets anywhere in the world, and may cover all assets without limitation, assets of a particular class, or specific assets. It would therefore be possible for a freezing order to encompass bank accounts as well as assets such as real property, art, securities or motor vehicles. Such orders would, however, normally allow for access to funds for reasonable expenses, living costs and payments in the ordinary course of a defendant or third party's business. A court may also order a freezing order against a third party, where it can be established that there is a risk that a judgment or prospective judgment may be unsatisfied as a result of a third party's power, possession or influence over the assets in question. The power to issue a freezing order is a function of courts' authority to prevent an abuse of the court process by the frustration of court-ordered remedies. A freezing order will be made only to preserve the status quo for the purpose of resolving a substantive cause of action brought by the plaintiff, and not as a stand-alone remedy.

The criteria for the issue of a freezing order is similar to the ordinary principles for the grant of interim relief, as discussed above, although the potentially serious impact on a defendant's property rights raises the threshold for the granting of a freezing order. This may be overcome by an undertaking as to damages given by the applicant of the freezing order, where the applicant undertakes to submit to such order (if any) as the court may consider to be just for the payment of compensation (to be assessed by the court or as it may direct) to any person affected by the operation of the order. The High Court of Australia described freezing orders as '"a drastic remedy which should not be granted lightly". Broadly and generally, an applicant must show that:

  • the applicant has a good arguable case (in the substantive cause of action);
  • the refusal of a freezing order will give rise to a real risk that any judgment pronounced in the action will remain unsatisfied, or that the recovery of any judgment will be prejudiced by reason of the removal by the defendant of assets from the jurisdiction, or their dissipation within it; and
  • the balance of convenience favours the making of the order.

Australian courts have wide discretion to award costs orders against either party to cover the opposing party's costs of litigation. The general rule is that costs follow the event. This means that the unsuccessful party will be liable to pay the litigation costs of the successful party. The aim of this rule is to achieve a just outcome by shifting the costs burden on to the party which is found to have either unjustifiably brought another party before the court or given another party cause to have recourse to the court to obtain their rights.

Where each litigant has enjoyed some success in the proceedings, courts may modify the general rule to make costs orders that reflect the litigants' relative success and failure. Courts may depart from the general rule by requiring a successful party to bear their own costs where there is good cause to do so. Such an outcome may be justified where, for example, a successful plaintiff is awarded only nominal damages, or a party succeeds only due to late and substantial amendments to their case.

Of particular strategic importance is the rule that generally a court will not award costs to a successful party which has obtained relief no more favourable than had already been offered by his or her opponent in settlement discussions. This rule is designed to encourage the early resolution of litigated disputes.

Costs orders are subject to a costs assessment process administered by the courts. It is unusual that a party will be able to recover all of its actual legal costs through this process. On a standard assessment, parties may recover approximately 60% to 75% of their actual costs. A higher rate of assessment, on an indemnity basis, may be employed where a party has engaged in unreasonable conduct in the proceeding.

All courts in Australia will charge fees for commencing civil proceedings (often referred to as a filing fee). Some jurisdictions, particularly superior courts, will also charge additional fees including but not limited to daily hearing fees (calculated by reference to the length of the trial), filing fees for notices of motions/applications and the issuing of subpoenas to third parties. These fees are set by the courts and are published on their websites. They are usually reviewed on a yearly basis. By way of example, the current rate (effective from 1 July 2023) for commencing proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia is AUD4,760 for corporations and the daily hearing fee for corporations can range from AUD3,180 (for the first four days) and AUD16,945 (for the 15th and subsequent days).

In all Australian jurisdictions, a representative proceeding, or class action (as it is more commonly known in Australia) may be commenced by or against any one person as a representative of numerous persons (the minimum number required is generally seven people) who have the same interest in the proceeding and the claims brought give rise to a substantial common issue of law or fact. It is possible to commence a class action against multiple defendants and there is no requirement for every group member to have a claim against every defendant.

An overarching consideration of the courts in hearing a representative proceeding is whether it involves less delay, expense, and prejudice to the parties than alternative forms of trial. If not, the court may discontinue the proceedings.

The Federal, New South Wales, Victorian and, most recently, Queensland jurisdictions contain further statutory provisions in relation to representative proceedings, which are arguably more liberal and plaintiff-friendly than other jurisdictions. These jurisdictions allow representative proceedings to be brought where seven or more people have claims which arise out of the same or related circumstances and give rise to a substantial common issue of fact or law. Over 90% of all class actions filed in Australia from 1992-2009 were filed in the Federal Court of Australia.

When a representative proceeding is commenced, all potential plaintiffs who fall within a class become members of the class, whether they are aware of the claim or not. Members can then opt out of the proceedings before a date set by the court. All class members who do not opt out will be bound by the judgment of the court or by any approved settlement.

It is important to note that, although some states have yet to formally abolish the law of champerty and maintenance, outside of the US, Australia has one of the most developed class action industries, with a variety of large, class action plaintiff law firms and with many litigation funders having been active in the jurisdiction for over 20 years. This active funding industry has seen a continued increase in the number of class actions being commenced in Australia.

Cameron Maclean

Cameron Maclean

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Perth
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Richard Edwards

Richard Edwards

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Perth
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Corey Steel

Corey Steel

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Perth
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T +61 8 6467 6234
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Natalie Caton

Natalie Caton

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Brisbane
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Liam Prescott

Liam Prescott

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Brisbane
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T T: +61 7 3246 4169
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Sophie Devitt

Sophie Devitt

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Brisbane
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T +61 7 3246 4058
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James Morse

James Morse

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Sydney
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Gitanjali Bajaj

Gitanjali Bajaj

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Sydney
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Tricia Hobson

Tricia Hobson

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Sydney
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T +61 2 9286 8023
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Fleur Gibbons

Fleur Gibbons

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Melbourne
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Gowri Kangeson

Gowri Kangeson

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Melbourne
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Kieran O'Brien

Kieran O'Brien

Partner
DLA Piper Australia - Melbourne
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T +61 3 9274 5840
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