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The role of a supreme court, or high court, will vary among jurisdictions as will the significance and effect of a supreme court verdict or ruling. Judicial systems throughout the world generally operate under either a common law system or a civil law system. In common law jurisdictions, a supreme court verdict will create a binding precedent, which must then be followed by all lower courts from that point on. In civil law jurisdictions, a supreme court verdict may only be applicable to the case in front of the court.
Legal systems throughout the world generally have at least one supreme court, often referred to as the "high court." Some legal systems have more than one supreme court, with each supreme court having jurisdiction over a specific geographic area or a specific area of the law. In China, for example, there are three separate courts of last resort — The Supreme Court of the Republic of China, The Supreme Administrative Court of the Republic of China, and the Council of Grand Justices. Within the United States, there is a federal Supreme Court, as well as a court of last resort within each state, territory, or commonwealth.
In countries that recognize more than one high court, the courts typically function as the court of last resort for a specific area of the law. Many countries, for example, have a supreme court that hears nothing but constitutional challenges. Other countries have a separate supreme court for civil and criminal cases. Within the United Kingdom, separate courts based on geography that have historically existed to handle legal issues from Ireland, Scotland, and England, as the boundaries and politics of the region have dictated.
In countries that follow a civil law system, the courts in general have limited power. Laws are made by the legislature and the role of a court is simply to apply the law to the case before it. Typically, the Supreme court in a civil law system is also limited in power. As such, a supreme court verdict in a civil law system generally only applies to the case before the court, meaning it has no far-reaching effect. Of course, other courts may use the same reasoning for a similar case at a later time, but are in no way obligated to do so or to reach the same conclusion.
In common law legal systems, on the other hand, a supreme court verdict has a significant and far-reaching effect. Common law systems use the concept of stare decisis to make law, meaning that decisions should be uniform and, as such, lower courts are obligated to follow decisions, or precedents, set by higher courts. As a result, a supreme court verdict sets a precedent that must, under the laws of the legal system, be followed by all the other courts in the country.
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