Legal English: Jurisdiction

Today’s phrase is “jurisdiction,” a word that can refer to many related legal concepts, but that is typically used in reference to the geographical limitations of a particular court or government body’s legal authority. Here are some sentences that use the word in context:

  • “The company that breached the agreement is headquartered in New York City, so the U.S. Federal Court for the Southern District of New York has jurisdiction to hear the suit.”
  • “You can’t file the suit in Germany just because it’s convenient for you. Neither of the parties is located there, and no part of the actions in question took place there. German courts lack jurisdiction.”

In common usage, as shown in the examples above, it is typically said that an entity “has” or “does not have” jurisdiction, meaning that the entity has or does not have authority to either hear a suit or deal with a particular matter. Jurisdiction is not limited to describing a court’s geographical authority. In fact, there are many types of jurisdiction under the laws of the United States.

Subject-matter jurisdiction: jurisdiction to hear suits because of the legal issues involved. This includes:

  • “Federal question” jurisdiction: the ability of a U.S. federal court to hear a suit because it relates to a question of federal law.
  • “Diversity” jurisdiction: the ability of a U.S. federal court to hear a suit because it is between citizens of different states, for example.

Personal jurisdiction includes:

  • “Personal” jurisdiction: jurisdiction over a particular person.
  • “In rem” jurisdiction: jurisdiction over a particular item of property, often real estate.

In addition to courts, police authorities and federal agencies are said to “have” jurisdiction over particular territories and topics, respectively.

Jurisdictional questions can present nuanced and sophisticated issues that require significant research, and they often arise in the context of international business disputes. Determining the appropriate forum or court to adjudicate the conflict is often an issue that is subject to intense litigation, as each party tends to prefer its home forum. The best way to avoid these battles and the attendant expenses in the context of a contract is to include a “choice of law” provision in the agreement that states which government’s law will govern it and which forum can hear disputes arising therefrom. While there may still be a dispute about jurisdiction, at least the intent of the parties at the time of drafting will be clear.