A formal written or spoken statement, esp. one given in a court of law


The expression comes from Anglo-Norman Middle English. A court of law is a place, hall, or chamber in which justice is administered.

You will also find the word in court of justice, court of judicature or the Supreme Court.

It was used in the middle ages in many occurrences where important institutions where to be found. See for instance the king's court - from which it then gained the meaning of "retinue".

You will find the word in Italian and Spanish "corte" (see for instance the Renaissance book "Il cortegiano" by Baldassare Castiglione.

Beyond Old French, Spanish and Italian, the origin can still be traced back to the Latin "cohort-em" which means yard or enclosure. In modern French it has lost its final "t" and is now spelled just "cour".

  • I think the 'a count of' just like 'a lot of'. I was wrong. so why not ' in the court of law' ? – user3780 Apr 8 '11 at 11:38
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    @user3780 - Because you cannot be specific. There is not a single court of law. If you'd say "in the court of law that would imply there's only one. By reading "in court of law" you know a judgement has been pronounced, but you cannot be any more specific than that. – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 8 '11 at 11:51
  • +1. There are other courts (of the legal variety): Courts of Appeal, Courts of Chancery, Courts of Cassation to name but a few :) – psmears Apr 8 '11 at 16:08
  • In modern usage "court" in the phrase in question does not refer to the place, but to the institution. – Marcin Jun 6 '11 at 19:48

you can't separate out the "law" from "a court of law". It is a set phrase. You could just say "in court", but not all proceedings in "a court of law" take place in the court room these days.

  • you could have a court of tennis, although I've never heard it, it is valid. I have heard a court of your peers. So you can separate them. – Matt E. Эллен Apr 8 '11 at 11:39
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    court of tennis sounds very odd; better to say tennis court. – Steve Melnikoff Apr 8 '11 at 12:41
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    There's also the court of public opinion. – Marthaª Apr 8 '11 at 14:44

The phrase a refers to the location and proceedings of a legal tribunal.

A court of law in the one sense is a physical place. It is the building in which the judge presides over a case of legal debate.

In the other sense, a court of law is the abstract situation, referring to the authority that the judge represents while presiding over said tribunal.

  • It also has a sense of "any legal procedings" eg. "that excuse wouldn't stand up in a court of law" – mgb Apr 8 '11 at 14:17

The House of Commons and the House of Lords formally make up the High Court of Parliament. There are also the courts (short for courtyards) in Oxbridge colleges and similar places, and "student courts" where student unions impose discipline without formal authority, so not all courts are courts of law.

There is also the technical point that only courts of law have the right to impose legal sentences. Tribunals, mediators, and local councils cannot fine or imprison people. (It's a technical point because, for example, the owner of a carpark cannot fine you for parking in the wrong place, but he can tow away your car till you pay what's due).

  • This is not actually true. Lots of civil authorities can impose fines. The High Court of Parliament is now arguably obsolete given that the Lords no longer exercises judicial functions, and enforcement of any order of the Commons sitting as a judicial body would probably be prevented by the Human Rights Act. – Marcin Jun 6 '11 at 19:58
  • I don't agree with your second sentence, but this isn't the place to argue the point. The High Court of Parliament still exists formally, and does sit as a judicial body eg on MPs' misbehaviour in the House. – TimLymington Jun 6 '11 at 21:14
  • FWIW Cambridge colleges do refer to their courtyards as "courts", but in Oxford they're "quads" (short for "quadrangle"). I don't know the reason behind the difference :) – psmears Jun 6 '11 at 22:52

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