List of Roles in a Court of Law

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List of roles in a court of law
Learn about the roles in a court of law.

Overview

This article provides an overview of the roles in a court of law. As a private investigator, some of your cases may require that you appear in court. You should have at least a basic understanding of the basic roles in a court of law.

Following is a list of roles in a court of law that you’ll encounter in most cases.

Bench Clerk

The Bench Clerk is the person who initially calls people into the court and tells them where to sit or stand. In criminal cases, the Bench Clerk reads the charges against the accused. In addition, the Bench Clerk administers the oath. 

Plaintiff

A plaintiff, also known as a claimant or complainant, is the legal term used in some jurisdictions for the party who initiates a lawsuit before a court. By doing so, the plaintiff seeks a legal remedy, and if successful, the court will issue judgment in favor of the plaintiff and make the appropriate court order (e.g., an order for damages). In some jurisdictions the commencement of a lawsuit is done by filing a summons, claim form and/or a complaint.

These documents are known as pleadings, that set forth the alleged wrongs committed by the defendant or defendants with a demand for relief. In other jurisdictions, the action is commenced by service of legal process (process service) by delivery of these documents on the defendant by a process server. The documents are only filed with the court subsequently with an affidavit from the process server that they had been given to the defendant according to the rules of civil procedure.

The Defendant

A defendant is any party who is required to answer the complaint of a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit before a court, or any party who has been formally charged or accused of violating a criminal statute. In criminal cases, the defendant is also referred to as the accused.

In criminal law, a defendant is anyone tried under the court of law as the person who committed the crime. In civil lawsuits, defendants usually appear in court after receiving a summons. In criminal cases, a defendant is usually taken into custody by police via an arrest warrant.

A defendant in a criminal case (particularly a felony or indictment) is usually obliged to post bail before being released from custody and must be present at every stage thereafter of the proceedings.  The defendant may have their lawyer appear instead.

Judge

A judge has the most prominent of all the roles in a court of law. The judge is either a man or a woman who presides over a court of law. Most judges preside alone, but sometimes preside as part of a panel of judges or other legal professionals.  A judge typically presides over a physical court room facility, but sometimes conducts court via two-way video in cases where safety is a concern or to expedite the judicial process.

The powers, functions, method of appointment, discipline, and training of judges vary widely across different jurisdictions. Check local laws and statutes if doing research for a case.

The judge hears all the witnesses and any other evidence presented by both of the parties of the legal case, commonly referred to as the Plaintiff and Defendant.

The judge assesses the credibility of the parties involved in the case, and then issues an official ruling or decision based on his or her interpretation of the law and his or her own personal judgment.

In some jurisdictions, powers may be shared with a jury, although this practice is starting to be phased out in some regions.

In many states throughout the United States, a judge is addressed verbally as “Your Honor” or “Judge” when presiding over the court. “Judge” may be more commonly used by attorneys and staff, while either may be commonly used by the plaintiff or defendant in the court room. In some situations, you may hear the term “Justice of the Peace” or “magistrate”.

Jury

A jury, which is sometimes referred to as a court jury, is a sworn body of people convened to render an impartial verdict (which is basically the finding of fact on a legal-related question) officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment in a court case.

The word jury is derived from the French word “jure”, which means “sworn”.  They are found in both criminal cases and civil lawsuits to ascertain the guilt or innocence in a crime. The verdict, or decision, in any particular court case may be guilty or not guilty.

Potential jurors are selected by legal counsel (lawyers and attorneys) from what is known as a jury pool. The pool is created from citizens who are chosen at random in the local jurisdiction.

Those chosen jurors listen and observe as the court case is presented by the legal counsel of the plaintiff and the defendant. After both cases are presented, the members retire to a location outside of the court room to discuss the facts and determine a verdict. The majority opinion of the group determines the ultimate verdict in the court case.

Other Jury Facts

  • The size varies depending on the type of court case
  • If the group is unable to reach a verdict, it is known as a hung jury
  • A bench trial is a trial without a jury
  • Juries are usually composed of jurors (also known as jurymen)

Different Types of Juries

  • Petit Jury– This type of group is used in either criminal cases or civil cases.
  • Grand Jury– This type is used in federal court cases. Grand juries review the evidence presented by the prosecutor and issue indictments if warranted. Grand juries normally consist of 12 jurors.
  • Coroner’s Jury– This type is formed to assist the coroner in detecting the reason(s) for a person’s death. A coroner is a public official that is elected by the local government to determine the reasons  and circumstances leading to the death of the person in suspicious cases. The coroner’s jury is formed to increase the confidence of the people for the investigation conducted by the coroner.

There are other roles in a court of law. Overviews of more roles will be added shortly.

What Private Investigators Need to Know

Private investigators may find themselves working for either side in a court case. Investigators may serve as an expert witness, a subject matter expert, or provide testimony regarding information, facts or details they dug up during their investigative efforts. Private investigators should be generally familiar with the various roles in a court of law.

If you have any questions about this list of roles in a court of law, please leave a comment below. If you’d like to learn about other law-related terms, view other legal and law definitions in our Investigation Glossary. Also, if you need legal forms, view the full list of legal forms at Nolo.com.

Michael Kissiah is the owner of Brandy Lane Publishing, LLC, which owns and operates a small portfolio of websites, including eInvestigator.com. Michael created eInvestigator.com more than 20 years ago after working as a private investigator in the state of Florida. Since that time, he has become an expert at how to find information online and has written over 1000 articles on topics related to the investigation industry. In addition, he is the author of the "Private Investigator Licensing Handbook", available at Amazon.com.

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