Understanding the Courtroom: Exploring the Key Roles in a Court of Law

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Rules in a court of law
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Overview

This article provides an overview of the roles in a court of law. Some cases may require you to appear in court as a private investigator. 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 you’ll encounter in most courtrooms.

Attorney or Lawyer

A legal professional who represents clients in court. Attorneys provide legal advice, advocate for their clients, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and make legal arguments to support their cases.

Bailiff

Bailiffs are law enforcement officers responsible for keeping order while the court is in session.

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.

Clerk of Court

An administrative officer is responsible for managing the court’s documents, records, and schedules. The clerk assists with filing legal documents, maintaining case records, and providing administrative support to the judge and attorneys.

Court Interpreter

A professional who provides language translation services for individuals who do not speak the language of the court. Court interpreters ensure that all parties understand and communicate effectively during the proceedings.

Court Reporter

Court reporters create verbatim transcripts of court proceedings, depositions, and other legal events. Their accurate records serve as crucial documentation for future reference or appellate processes.

Defendant

A defendant is any party who answers a plaintiff’s complaint 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 a court of law as the person who committed the crime. A defendant is usually taken into custody by police via an arrest warrant. With civil lawsuits, defendants usually appear in court after receiving a summons.

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.

Defense Attorney

A lawyer who represents the defendant in a criminal case or the respondent in a civil case. Defense attorneys challenge the evidence presented by the prosecution, cross-examine witnesses, and make arguments to support their client’s innocence or minimize their liability.


Judge

A judge has the most prominent role 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 as part of a panel of judges or other legal professionals.  A judge typically presides over a physical courtroom facility but sometimes conducts court via two-way video in cases where safety concerns or to expedite the judicial process.

Judges’ powers, functions, appointment methods, discipline, and training vary widely across 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 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 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 the plaintiff or defendant may commonly use either in the courtroom. Sometimes, you may hear “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 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 criminal cases and civil lawsuits to ascertain the guilt or innocence of 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 chosen randomly 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 outside the courtroom to discuss the facts and determine a verdict. The majority opinion of the group determines the ultimate verdict in the court case.

  • 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 common in criminal or civil cases.
  • Grand Jury– This type is common 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 elected by the local government. Their responsibility is to determine the reasons and circumstances leading to the person’s death in suspicious cases. The coroner’s jury increases the people’s confidence in the investigation conducted by the coroner.

Legal Assistant/Paralegal

Legal assistants and paralegals support lawyers in law firms, government agencies, or corporate legal departments. They conduct research, draft legal documents, and assist with case preparation.

Plaintiff

A plaintiff, also a claimant or complainant, is the legal term 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 a judgment in favor of the plaintiff and make the appropriate court order (e.g., an order for damages). In some jurisdictions, a lawsuit is commenced by filing a summons, claim form, and a complaint.

These documents are known as pleadings, which 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 to 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.

There are other roles in a court of law. We will add more overviews of various roles in the future.

Prosecutor

A lawyer who represents the government or state in criminal cases. Prosecutors present evidence, question witnesses and argue for the defendant’s guilt. They aim to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Witness

A person who provides testimony about their knowledge or observations related to the case. Witnesses may be called by either the prosecution or the defense to provide evidence.

Expert Witness

A witness with specialized knowledge or expertise in a particular field relevant to the case. Expert witnesses provide opinions and analyses to help the court understand complex matters.

What Private Investigators Need to Know

Private investigators may find themselves working for either side in a court case. Investigators may serve as expert witnesses or subject matter experts 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.

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

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