In common law systems, a superior court is a court of general competence which typically has unlimited jurisdiction with regard to civil and criminal legal cases. A superior court is "superior" in relation to a court with limited jurisdiction (see lower court), which is restricted to civil cases involving monetary amounts with a specific limit, or criminal cases involving offenses of a less serious nature. A superior court may hear appeals from lower courts (see court of appeal). The highest of the superior courts is the Supreme court.
The term "superior court" has its origins in the English court system. The royal courts were the highest courts in the country, with what would now be termed supervisory jurisdiction over baronial and local courts. Decisions of those courts could be reviewed by the royal courts, as part of the Crown's role as the ultimate fountain of justice. The royal courts became known as the "superior courts", while lower courts whose decisions could be reviewed by the royal courts became known as "inferior courts". The decisions of the superior courts were not reviewable or appealable, unless an appeal was created by statute.
The provincial and territorial superior courts of original jurisdiction are courts of general jurisdiction: all legal matters fall within their jurisdiction, unless assigned elsewhere by statute passed by the appropriate legislative authority. Their jurisdiction typically includes civil lawsuits involving contracts, torts, property, and family law. They also have jurisdiction over criminal prosecutions for indictable offences under the Criminal Code of Canada. They also hear civil appeals from decisions of the provincial and territorial "inferior" courts, as well as appeals from those courts in summary conviction matters under the Criminal Code. They also have jurisdiction of judicial review over administrative decisions by provincial or territorial government entities such as labour boards, human rights tribunals and licensing authorities.
The superior courts of appeal hear appeals from the superior courts of original jurisdiction, as well as from the inferior courts and administrative tribunals. The jurisdiction of the superior courts of appeal are entirely statutory. The details of their jurisdiction will vary depending on the laws passed by the federal government and the particular province or territory.
All judges of the provincial superior courts are appointed by the federal government under the authority of the Constitution Act, 1867, while judges of the territorial superior courts are appointed under the authority of their respective territorial acts passed by the federal Parliament. The judges of the Federal Courts are appointed by the federal government under the authority of the Federal Courts Act.
The High Courts are courts of first instance with general jurisdiction; they can hear all cases except those where exclusive jurisdiction is granted by law to another court. Most cases are, however, tried in the magistrates' courts or other lower courts, and appeals from these courts are heard by the High Court.
The Supreme Court of Appeal is solely an appellate court, hearing appeals from the High Courts. The Constitutional Court is primarily an appellate court, hearing appeals on constitutional matters from the Supreme Court of Appeal or in some cases directly from the High Courts. The Constitutional Court also occasionally acts as a court of first instance in certain cases involving the constitutionality of laws and government actions.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the superior court of record of the United Kingdom and is the final appellate court for all separate legal systems of the parts of the United Kingdom (except criminal matters in Scotland).
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final forum for several independent Commonwealth nations as well as all Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies, and thus is the superior court in its capacity as the final appellate court of the respective legal systems.
In a number of jurisdictions in the United States, the Superior Court is a state trial court of general jurisdiction with power to hear and decide any civil or criminal action which is not specially designated to be heard in some other courts. California, Connecticut, Washington, Maine, the District of Columbia, and Georgia are all examples of such jurisdictions. In other states, equivalent courts are also known as courts of common pleas (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and others), circuit courts (Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and others), district courts (Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and others) or, in the case of New York, the Supreme Court.
The term "superior court" raises the obvious question of superior to what. Formerly, many jurisdictions had inferior trial courts of limited jurisdiction such as municipal courts, traffic courts, and justice of the peace courts, so it was natural to call the next level of courts "superior." However, some states, like California, have unified their court systems. In California, all lower courts were absorbed into the Superior Courts of California after 1998. The lower courts now exist only as mere administrative subdivisions of the superior courts. The superior courts are legally no longer superior to any other trial courts. Thus, the term "superior court" persists in California only as a matter of tradition. Similarly, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia is the sole local trial court, and what would be inferior courts are divisions of that court, but, as a trial court, may hear appeals from administrative agencies such as the appeals board of the Department of Motor Vehicles or of the Department of Public Works.
In Pennsylvania, the Superior Court is an appellate court, hearing appeals of criminal cases and private civil cases from the Pennsylvania courts of common pleas. In New Jersey, the Superior Court comprises the Law Division and Chancery Division (trial courts of general jurisdiction, hearing cases at law and in equity respectively, with cases assigned to different parts of each court by legislation and court rule), and an Appellate Division that hears appeals from the other two parts. The Criminal Part of the Law Division and the Family Party of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court also hear appeals from the New Jersey municipal courts, courts with limited jurisdiction to hear lower-order criminal cases and to grant temporary restraining orders in domestic-violence cases. In Maine, the Superior Court is both a trial court of general jurisdiction and an appellate court that considers appeals from the Maine District Court in certain types of cases, as well as appeals from most state and municipal agencies.