lower court | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Policing

A lower court is a court that makes decisions that are subject to appeal; often used by appellate courts to describe trial courts.

Imagine the judicial system as a tower. At the base, you find the lower courts, sometimes called trial courts or courts of first instance. They are the foundation, handling the majority of cases. As you climb up the tower, you find higher-level courts that only hear a small portion of cases. These cases usually come from the lower courts.

The Role of Lower Courts

So, what happens in these lower courts? This is where a legal case starts. Lower courts hear the evidence, consider the laws, and make a decision. Think of it as a starting line in a race, where the details of the case are laid out for the first time.

Lower courts handle many types of cases. They can range from minor disputes, such as traffic violations, to more serious matters, like murder trials. The diversity of cases is like a wide starting line with many lanes, each one for a different kind of legal issue.

Decisions and Appeals

After hearing a case, the lower court makes a decision. This decision is like the first runner in a relay race, setting the pace for what follows. But the race doesn’t end there. The decision can be appealed. An appeal is like a baton pass to the next runner. It moves the case from the lower court to a higher court.

When an appeal is made, the higher court, often called the appellate court, reviews the case. They check if the lower court made a mistake. This is like a race official checking if the baton pass was done correctly. If there was a mistake, the appellate court can change the decision or send it back to the lower court for a redo. If no mistake was found, the appellate court will affirm the lower court’s decision, and the race ends there.

Lower Courts: The Backbone of the Judicial System

The lower courts play a critical role in the judicial system. They are like the wide base of our imagined tower or the numerous runners at the starting line. They handle the bulk of legal cases, ensuring that each one gets its day in court. While their decisions can be appealed to higher courts, most cases are resolved at the lower court level. This makes the lower courts a vital part of maintaining law and order.


In conclusion, lower courts serve as the starting point in the judicial process. They handle a wide range of cases, making initial decisions that can be appealed to higher courts. By better understanding the role and function of lower courts, we gain a clearer picture of the judicial system as a whole. Just as a tower needs a strong base, the judicial system relies on lower courts to support the rule of law.

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Last Modified: 05/29/2023

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