Broadly, a specialized court is any court that handles only a specific type of criminal or civil matter. These courts can take multiple forms, from Missouri’s truancy court for students skipping school to the US federal government’s bankruptcy courts. Specialized courts bring many advantages for both the courts and for individual participants, but they also have unique disadvantages.
While very diverse, specialized courts have some common characteristics. These courts generally exist to serve special or marginalized topics that general courts find difficult to adjudicate easily or fairly. Some courts, such as bankruptcy courts or the often-proposed terrorism court, may require specialized knowledge or rules to handle cases fairly. Other courts may have a “problem-solving” focus, such as drug, domestic violence, juvenile and veteran’s courts, which place emphasis on therapeutic resolutions. This makes them unsuited for the adversarial “defendant versus plaintiff” nature of general courts.
Benefits for Courts
The judicial system receives many benefits from specialized courts. Both lawyers and judges can focus solely on their legal specialties, making cases more efficient. Specialized courts relieve pressure on general courts by removing cases that may be especially time-consuming, such as bankruptcy cases. Specialized courts can also institute special rules unsuitable for general courts; for example, a proposed terrorism court could require that sensitive evidence be shown in secret.
Benefits for Participants
Participants on either side of an issue benefit from specialized courts. Specialized judges have a greater understanding of issues and are better able to offer fair rulings based on the facts. “Problem-solving” courts give convicted defendants more and better options for resolution. For example, a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who commits a crime may be more likely to receive specialized treatment if tried in a veteran’s court set up specifically to help people in his situation.
Disadvantages for Courts
Specialized courts take away money and resources from the general court system, which can place greater stress on the general court system and can be seen as “elitist” if specific cases receive more attention than others. Specialized courts also run the risk of encouraging special interest groups to take an undue interest in influencing court decisions, or becoming overly deferential to the opinions of specific judges or experts.
Disadvantages for Participants
Specialized courts run the risk of separating defendants into tiers, or even into “good” and “bad” defendants. For example, if a veteran with PTSD commits a crime in an area with a veteran’s court, that court could offer him special benefits that a non-veteran with PTSD would not be able to access, despite being largely in the same situation.