Law Courts in the Known Worlds
This discussion draws from the discussion of legal systems in Merchants of the Jumpweb and elsewhere.
The law distinguishes four sorts of people: property, like serfs and slaves, freemen (including the guilders), clergy, and the nobility. Each of these four classes is treated differently under the law.
Property is not, in fact, subject to any sort of judicial oversight, really: it's up to their owners to determine what happenes, and if a slave or serf does harm to another it is their owner (or lord, in the case of a serf) who is held accountable.
Regardless of the crime, members of the clergy are guaranteed a trial before an ecclesiastical court (see 'ecclesiastical courts', below), usually with the local bishop or a panel of priests as judges.
By far most courts are concerned with freeman - these are the local courts, set up by noble overlords to settle disputes among their peasants and free tenants. Local courts run almost exlcusively on a principle of common law, where the judgments of appointed magistrates (in civilized areas, Reeves, or in rural areas a deputized knight or freeman marshal) is made by examining the long rolls of precedent to make a decision. While a particular lord may issue statutes to govern his realm, these are usually exceptional, with most crimes instead being arbitrated by the common body of law that has developed over centuries. This body of law is not limited to a single fiefdom, either - jurists may look to decisions made in other fiefs, or even on other planets to find a precedent to support their decision. It is just this system of common law which makes Reeve advocates so essential, as the time and resources that is required to research precedent is largely impossible for the untrained, much less the illiterate.
This, in fact, is one of the chief advantages of being a member of a guild when it comes to matters legal: the Reeves service is often covered in whole or part by the guild, and consequently guilders have more than a snowball's chance in hell of defeating charges against them.
Another advantage of being a guilder is enshrined in an important principle of common law - the reality that proving a charge can be done as easily by proving that the accused has a criminal character as it can be by proving facts of a case. This is one of the reasons why Ukari and other undesirables are often fingered for crimes, as the mere fact that they are an alien or are unemployed makes them guilty. If, in fact, one can prove that the accused is unemployed, or is an adulterer, or a former deserter, or possesses some other failing, then the case against them is more or less certain to be won. Being a member of a guild, on the other hand, provides an immediate surety that the accused is -not- an undesirable, as he is a member of an accepted trade and consequently has standing and virtue in freeman society.
Now, there is a court of appeal for those judged against in these commoner courts - and that's the court of the ruling noble himself. This is also the court in which any matter involving a noble and a free person is decided, and when we describe it as the 'lord's court' it is just that - the assembled court of the realm, which debates over the trial in the same way that it does over any other social matter. These noble courts do not function upon the principle of common law, as do the common courts they delegate power to - rather, a lord's court is a court of equity, where instead of looking at statute and precedence the lord makes the decision, ideally, based on fairness. As usually appeals for something to be heard in the lord's court are turned down, it is generally only the free elite - wealthy guilders - who are heard before the lord himself, and consequently these courts of equity are as much about politics as they are about fairness. When one party in the dispute is noble-born, politics becomes even more important, to the point where a noble court almost resembles the ancient Anglo-Saxon system where the victor in court is the man who brings more supportors to the trial. In especially large realms - places like the Hub - there is sometimes an intermediate step between the common-law courts of the magistrates and the Court of Count Sharn himself. This lesser court of appeals is also based upon the principle of equity, and is run by some high-ranking official or close relative of the ruling lord. Most commonly, this is the Court of Chancery, ruled upon by the chancellor of the realm.
Some cases, however, are not heard before the nobility or their magistrates: instead, they are heard by the Church in ecclesiastical courts. Two sorts of cases fall into the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. First, any case involving a member of the clergy is an ecclesiastical case, as the clergy (even lay brethren who have not taken orders or vows) are entitled to protection by the Church. This sometimes leads freemen - even serfs - to shakily recite the Omega Gospels or the nomocanon in hopes of being granted clerical exemption.
Second, and more seriously, questions of moral law belong to the ecclesiastical courts. Heresy, technosophy, trafficking in proscribed goods, thought crimes and witchcraft all fall within the ecclesiastical domain - and these crimes take precedence over any temporal crimes a person may be accused of, and are judged first accordingly. While the majority of the accused in Church courts are clergy or freemen, the nobility are subject to their jurisdiction, though they are treated better than freemen and enjoy certain freedoms under the Doctrine of the Privilege of Martyrs and other edicts.
Church courts are presided over by the local bishop or (in some cases) a panel of ordained priests. One of the clergy serves as prosecutor - often, this is a member of the Inquisitorial Synod - and the accused either speaks in his own defense or obtains an advocate. Usually this is a Reeve, but there are occaisons where the clergy have stepped up to defend some poor soul on the docket. Unlike noble courts, the principle of equity has no place whatsoever in ecclesiastical trials, as anyone who is not the Patriarch is not qualified to make judgments in defiance of Church law. Consequently, church courts are heavily dependent upon precedent and canon law, though there is definately room in assigning penance for the court to insert some of its own judgment on the matter.
Regency and Imperial courts
So far, we've discussed cases that involve two freemen, a freeman and a noble, a freeman and a clergyman, two clergy, or the clergy and a nobleman - but we have not touched on how disputes between two of the nobility are settled.
Largely, they aren't. The preferred method to settling a dispute between nobles is the duel, and failing that, war. Courts of law come in a distant third - but they do exist, as sometimes the other solutions are impractical. This court is called the Regency Court, and while there is a permanent set of High Justices on Byzantium Secundus most of the time a particular court is convened on an ad hoc basis with a tribunal consisting of a member of each party's house and then some third party, often a representative of the dominant House on the world or someone else with a claim to power and responsibility.
The Regency Court is a confused mess, which is one reason why the nobility dislike it. Various regents have issued statues over the centuries which affect relationships between the nobility and houses, and in addition the High Justices have ruled one way or another many times since the court was first set up. Add this to the much larger body of lower court decisions, and the weight of statute and precedence is staggering. That is largely no different, however, than the Church court. What makes the Regency Court such a mess is that despite all the legalese, the justices appointed on a case are still expected to use their judgment and conscience in determining the outcome of the matter - though at the same time, they are expected to be mindful of tradition. This means that to win a case in the Regency Court one must not only have legal arguments based on law and precedence to hand, but also compelling oration and moral argumentation to sway the hearts and minds of the justices. What's worse, justices are also instructed to keep the good of the Regency in mind, even up to the Emperor himself (who is the head of the Regency court) and so sometimes, the parties in a Regency Court matter can find them subsumed to some greater Imperial need. This happened notably in the case of the Second Jumpgate on Pandemonium, where the Emperor denied all claims for ownership and instead appointed a joint commission of League, Decados and Empire to monitor it which ultimately is beholden to the throne.
Finally, there is a brand new court - the Imperial Court. The Imperial Court is similar in some ways to the Regency Court, save that because it is so new there is no precedence to be based upon - and, because it does not appoint local judges, it is largely dependent on the Emperor's own word, making it a court of equity. The Imperial Court rules on questions of interstellar trade and other matters, and also serves as an ultimate court of appeal for any of the lesser courts in the Known Worlds. Not many cases are heard before the Imperial Court, but the percieved power of the court gives the Emperor's lictors - the agents of the court - a great deal of political capital, as they are the individuals who relay appeals and issues to the court's attention. As a practical matter, these lictors end up serving as local justices of the court in many ways, or perhaps as subtle ombudsmen - for when they indicate their legal opinion on a matter, the lesser courts listen carefully less their decision be undermined by the matter being passed up to the Emperor himself.