From legal-dictionary.com, kangaroo court is defined as such:

[Slang of U.S. origin.] An unfair, biased, or hasty judicial proceeding that ends in a harsh punishment; an unauthorized trial conducted by individuals who have taken the law into their own hands, such as those put on by vigilantes or prison inmates; a proceeding and its leaders who are considered sham, corrupt, and without regard for the law.

What are some other terms or phrases that could be synonyms of 'kangaroo court'? I was thinking that in Gulliver's Travels there were parts where Gulliver found himself at the mercy of such "kangaroo courts" and knowing how Swift describes things with such phrases, I thought I could find a synonym of it but haven't been able to.

  • "Mock trial" carries some of the same implications.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 16:08
  • 4
    "Show trial" might be good. Or "Kafkaesque," although it's not a noun. These are slightly different in meaning, though.
    – Casey
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 16:48
  • 9
    @HotLicks *Mock trial * is usually used (at least in legal circles) to refer to practice trials to train lawyers in preparation for an upcoming real trial or for hypothetical trials to train law students.
    – bib
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 16:56
  • 1
    @bib "Moot court" is often used in US law schools for such exercises.
    – Rob_Ster
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 21:31
  • 3
    a "drumhead" trial?
    – HorusKol
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 23:27

10 Answers 10


A show trial is one in which the outcome has already been decided, meaning that the trial itself is merely carried out "for show", either to feign legitimacy, or intimidate others, or both.

Another phrase that might be relevant in some cases is witch hunt. Originally this literally meant to search for witches, i.e. people who engaged in witchcraft. Those accused would be put on trial in what was essentially a kangaroo court. In modern usage, the phrase has come to be used metaphorically for any similar biased proceedings, such as those of McCarthyism.

  • This is easily the best answer, pretend I double-upvoted it. These two suggestions have to be the closest to synonymical with the term in question. Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 14:04

The original kangaroo court was the Star Chamber in particular under the Tudors and Stuarts.

In modern usage, legal or administrative bodies with strict, arbitrary rulings and secretive proceedings are sometimes called, metaphorically or poetically, star chambers. This is a pejorative term and intended to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proceedings. ... the historical abuses of the Star Chamber are considered a primary motivating force behind the protections against compelled self-incrimination embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

  • 4
    In the modern U.S., of course, we have the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. But "FISC" doesn't roll off the tongue quite like "Star Chamber". Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 16:54
  • 3
    @DougWarren Typically, I think, it's referred to as FISA or the FISA court, rather than FISC
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 19:24

A couple more general ideas, that meet the single word tag:

The trial was a charade


noun: charade; plural noun: charades

an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.

"talk of unity was nothing more than a charade"

synonyms: farce, pantomime, travesty, mockery, parody, pretense, act, masquerade

"our entire relationship is a charade"

Of the synonyms listed above, I would say calling a trial or court hearing a travesty, pantomime, mockery, or pretense also expresses similar contempt or dubiousness with coming from a slightly different angle.


More generally, you might say the trial was a farce or farcical.

farce (n) : an empty or patently ridiculous act, proceeding, or situation
<the trial became a farce>

[Merriam-Webster Online]

I believe this emphasizes the pre-determined nature of kangaroo courts, connoting theater, rather than the brutality associated with such proceedings. If you'd like to emphasize the latter, some other word might be a better choice.


If the proceeding is merely an excuse to rush the accused to execution, it could be called a lynch mob.

a group of people who condemn and punish a person without a fair trial:

He claimed that they had been the victims of a racist lynch mob.

It also can be used metaphorically

a group of people who criticize someone severely and try to bring about the person's downfall:

Something approaching a lynch mob has been gathering against the Chancellor for even daring to consider higher interest rates.

It is in the public interest that sleaze is exposed. But it's time to call off the lynch mob.


  • This term, "lynch mob" implies an uncontrolled group of people without authority or the pretense of a trial who are 'out for blood'.
    – rolfedh
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 14:52
  • @rolfedh I agree that is the literal meaning, but the term is often used metaphorically, as in This trial is a sham! This court is nothing but a lynch mob! The implication is that the court is acting without real authority and is merely intent on punishment without justification..
    – bib
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:00
  • I appreciate your contribution, but the question asks for a synonym, not a simile.
    – rolfedh
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:11
  • "simile: a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox )."
    – rolfedh
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:13
  • @rolfedh Kangaroo court started out as a simile.
    – bib
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:15

A thesaurus lists

impromptu court


mock court

A quick google shows that impromptu court does not have a well-known definition, other than the relation to kangaroo court.

  • 5
    "Mock court" can also be used to mean something that isn't a real court at all, but for instance, a pretend trial for law students to practice with. Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 13:48
  • 1
    I'd say that "impromptu court" implies one that was hastily arranged (possibly in the absence of any official legal procedure), but not necessarily one that is unfair. "Mock court" or more likely "mock trial" could be used in that sense, but also could be used as a practice as @Panzercrisis stated. Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 16:39

Consider Parody of justice (or "travesty/mockery/miscarriages of justice")

Example: After a trial before a special commission which was a parody of justice - the accused was not permitted to have any legal assistance or the use of writing materials - he was condemned to decapitation and promptly executed.


I think "show trial" is probably your best bet.

Another possibility is "drumhead trial". This comes from a "drumhead court-martial". By itself, "drumhead" is an adjective. From dictionary.com:

adjective 3. characteristic of a drumhead court-martial; carried out in summary fashion: a drumhead execution

From the Oxford Dictionaries Online:

Carried out by or as if by an army in the field; improvised or summary: a drumhead court-martial

I always think of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Drumhead.


In the UK I have heard occasionally juryless trials being described as kangaroo courts by the defendants or their supporters.

Here such juryless trials are however only used for specific cases of complex fraud and or where the authorities think there is danger of jury tampering.

I am not saying these are actually kangaroo courts but defendants have used the term.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criminal_Justice_Act_2003#Trials_without_a_jury


Officially: "Fraud on The Court":

Fraud on the court occurs when the judicial machinery itself has been tainted, such as when an attorney, who is an officer of the court, is involved in the perpetration of a fraud or makes material misrepresentations to the court. Fraud upon the court makes void the orders and judgments of that court.

Fraud upon the court is fraud which is directed to the judicial machinery itself... thus where the impartial functions of the court have been directly corrupted."



Slang: "circus" is common use.

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