Courts employ many professionals to assist first-instance and appellate judges with the adjudication and administration of court proceedings. Unlike in the United States, court personnel may serve in a quasi-judicial capacity and many are part of the national civil service. Countries organize this infrastructure and assign tasks in various ways, often under titles not recognized, or used differently, by other countries. This is the case across legal traditions—common-law, civil-law, religious-court, and mixed systems.
The assistance of a law clerk or research aide may not be available to lower-court judges because of resource constraints. So by necessity, judges in many countries take on significant administrative responsibilities.
Types of Court Personnel
This discussion divides court personnel into three categories: judicial officers, legal staff, and administrative staff. Professional responsibilities that do not fall neatly into a category are noted. Many of the positions are found in both first-instance and appellate courts.
Judges may be part of a nation’s civil service, and there is often a large cadre of officials that performs a mix of judicial, legal, and administrative tasks.
Research Judge / Research Official / Deputy Judge
Some systems have judicial officers who do not preside over cases, but support the work of the courts. For example, judges in South Korea and Japan are assisted by professionals who have expertise in specific fields of law. In South Korea, they are called research judges and in Japan, judicial research officials. Japan’s judicial research officials also have authority to settle certain types of disputes. In Denmark, deputy judges assist sitting judges with research and drafting. The German constitutional and federal supreme courts assign younger judges (with five to ten years of experience) to prepare cases and draft decisions. In Egypt, midcareer judges are assigned to the technical bureau of the country’s high courts, and they assist sitting judges with research, drafting, and administrative matters. The federal magistrate judge in the United States is a judicial officer with responsibility for pretrial proceedings; magistrate judges also may preside over civil trials and mediation with the consent of the litigants.
A Rechtspfleger is a judicial officer who presides over noncontentious matters such as probate, custody, adoption, land registry, and insolvency. A Rechtspfleger may be responsible for debt recovery orders, writs of execution, receiverships, fixing court costs, and enforcing judgments. The position originated in Germany, but it can now be found in fifteen European countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Ireland. Rechtspfleger-type judicial officers also work in the courts of Chile, Mali, and Tunisia. Rechtspfleger responsibilities and training vary country to country.
Lawyers working in courts fill different roles. Many countries employ lawyers for research and drafting assistance; these lawyers often have specialized expertise.
Legal Adviser / Mufti / Secretario
Legal advisers are attorneys who carry out tasks assigned by judges or Rechtspfleger. The advisers exercise independent judgment, unlike a U.S. law clerk. Their responsibilities and training may be defined by law. Slovakia has judicial assistants and court assistants; both can be authorized by judges to decide a limited range of matters related to administrative and civil proceedings. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, legal advisers serve a mixed substantive and administrative function: they advise judges on law and procedure, oversee court proceedings, explain procedures to defendants and witnesses, manage administrative matters, and schedule hearings. Presenting a somewhat different paradigm of adviser in court proceedings, a mufti in Islamic legal systems is a jurist who may provide nonbinding advisory opinions (fatwas) to judges.
Many Latin American countries have secretarios, lawyers who assist with a combination of legal and administrative tasks, including preparing court documents and draft judgments. In Argentina, secretarios who pass an exam may be appointed to the judiciary.
Law Clerk / Court Attorney / Legal Assistant
Law clerks in the United States are usually recent law school graduates. They provide research and drafting assistance to first instance and appellate judges, typically for a one or two-year term. In other countries, law clerk positions may only be available to the high courts, such as South Africa’s constitutional court and Morocco’s court of cassation. In the supreme and appellate courts of the Philippines, this role is filled by the court attorney. Federal courts in the United States also have court attorneys; they oversee certain types of litigation, including petitions filed pro se or in death penalty cases. The Chinese judiciary recruits law clerks from recent law school graduates who pass a competitive exam; the law clerks assist judges and may be appointed as judges in the future. In the Czech Republic, the legal assistant is a career professional and may be given authority to settle cases. Slovenia has expert assistants that file court documents, take witness statements, and prepare draft decisions for judges. In Finland, referendaries help judges with research and drafting; they may be career assistants or may be term-limited. German Rechtsreferendar are recent law school graduates who spend two years in the courts as part of their mandatory training.
There is considerable diversity in the administrative structure of court systems and how they are staffed. Court administrator positions include high-level court executives as well as lower-level deputy registrars, court clerks, and secretaries. In countries where the ministry of justice is responsible for court administration, ministry officials carry out many functions, including recruiting staff and managing court budgets. In countries with professional court administrators, judges may not be involved with their selection. Throughout Latin America and much of the Middle East, and in many other countries, judges are responsible for court administration.
(Judiciary-Wide) Chief Executive / Registrar
The chief administrative officer for the entire judiciary may be institutionally situated within the supreme court or an administrative office: the judicial secretary in Ghana, the executive director in Namibia, the court administrator in the Philippines, the secretary (of the supreme court) in Indonesia, the chief of staff in Ukraine. This role may be filled by a registrar who is legally trained and exercises both administrative and judicial duties. Registrars work in the supreme courts of many African countries as well as Israel, Nepal, Pakistan, and Singapore. These chief executives may have broad responsibilities, including serving as the judiciary’s public relations officers and overseeing judicial security, training, and procurement.
(Individual Court) Chief Executive / Clerk of Court / Greffier
Intermediate appellate and first-instance courts often have executive officers who oversee court administration and work under the authority of the chief judge/court president, as is the case with the head clerk in the courts of Abu Dhabi and the clerk of court in the United StatesBut in many countries these responsibilities are assigned to the court president. Titles for senior administrative positions include greffier, registrar, and director general. In France, the greffier is responsible for all aspects of court administration. In Tunisia, the chief clerk usually has a graduate degree in a law-related field.
Subordinate Court Administrators
Most court systems have registrars, clerks, and greffier of different grades who fill a range of functions, from maintaining registries to supervising the execution of judgments. Australia’s registrars assist judges with administrative matters and may be involved with case management, service of process, adjourning hearings, mediation, and issuing orders for costs and discovery. The Pakistani high courts have additional registrars responsible for specific fields including procurement, security, and protocol; in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, the greffier is tasked with scheduling and managing court records, and the registrar receives case files when they are initially filed.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the court clerk is responsible for managing the courtroom, preparing court documents, and informing judges about case updates. This is the role of the court deputy in the United States, while case managers, intake clerks, and deputy clerks are responsible for other case management-related duties. North African court clerks organize files, take minutes of proceedings, and interact with the public. In Slovenia, court clerks are referred to as secretaries to the court. Japan’s clerks are appointed from court secretaries after they pass an exam and undergo specialized training; they attend hearings, prepare and file court records, oversee court hearings, and assist judges with legal research. In Finland, many court administration tasks are carried out by lawyers who are seeking to become judges.