Courts of Limited Jurisdiction: Definition, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we will learn about the lowest form of trial court: courts of limited jurisdiction. We will discuss several types of these courts to better understand their role in the U.S. court system.

Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

What do you think of when you imagine having to go to court? Do you think of getting married, addressing a traffic violation, or disputing a small sum of money? If so, your image of the court is that of a court of limited jurisdiction_, which makes sense since this type of court handles a large number of cases.

In the United States, each state is allowed to establish its own court system to rule on state laws. These courts are organized into a hierarchy: courts of limited jurisdiction, courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate courts of appeals, and courts of last resort (which have the highest authority at the state level). State courts make decisions on criminal and civil matters of state law.

Some states have a single place where all cases originate: courts of general jurisdiction. However, many states have chosen to try the least serious offenses and issues in a separate court, generally referred to as a court of limited jurisdiction. The National Center for State Courts estimated that there are 14,000 to 16,000 of these courts nationwide. The cases heard by these courts include:

  • Marriage, divorce, and alimony
  • Family court (adoption, emancipation, juvenile offenses)
  • Misdemeanors (least serious criminal offenses)
  • Traffic violations
  • Small claims (disputes over small amounts of money or inexpensive items)
  • Inheritance and estate settlement

Courts of limited jurisdiction are called by many different names, including city court, county court, justice of the peace, magistrate, municipal court, and probate court. Each state gets to establish and then divide up responsibility among one or more of these courts, which are usually referred to by the type of cases heard. The name varies depending on the official responsibility of that court, as determined by the state.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Courts of limited jurisdiction introduce many issues - in fact, a large bulk of the court system's case load is addressed here. It is often quicker and easier to get a case heard by a court of limited jurisdiction; this is an advantage for the people involved and helps reduce the case load heard by higher courts. Courts of limited jurisdiction are often located in smaller, less populated parts of the state. This makes it easier for people to reach the court who live far from large metropolitan areas.

Courts of limited jurisdiction judges have the lowest requirements for legal education of any level of courts in the country. Some states do not require that these judges have any legal training at all, but only a high school degree. This can be controversial because the decisions (although on minor issues) are still legal, binding arbitration.

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