As you know, military and civilian courts stand as distinctive entities, each guided by its own legal system, and they also differ in their levels of transparency and the efficiency with which they dispense justice. 

Civilian courts typically embrace transparency and a longer legal process, while military courts often conduct proceedings with a certain level of confidentiality and a faster pace at which justice is delivered, as shown by research.

While both contribute to the delivery of justice, there is another form that addresses particular types of legal issues: the special courts. Among these is a court established to handle specific types of cases, often during times of conflict or emergency—the military tribunals. But what is it, and who can face military tribunals?

In definition

Military tribunals serve a different purpose and are often established for exceptional circumstances, such as dealing with war crimes, acts of terrorism, or other offenses that are a threat to national security and may be outside the scope of regular military courts. They may operate outside the regular legal system and have jurisdiction over civilians and military personnel.

Jurisdiction and Authority

Military courts and civilian courts differ in their jurisdiction and authority. In terms of jurisdiction, military courts are empowered to preside over cases involving members of the armed forces who’ve violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). This includes offenses committed both on and off duty, as long as they’re related to the military service.

As for authority, the military courts have the ability to enforce military law and regulations, as well as maintain discipline within the armed forces. They have the power to impose punishments such as imprisonment, fines, demotions, and even dishonorable discharge. 

While in civilian courts, they have jurisdiction over cases involving civilians and offenses that aren’t covered by the UCMJ and they’re authority lies in enforcing the laws of the land and administering justice to all individuals, regardless of their affiliation with the military. They can sentence individuals to imprisonment, fines, probation, community service, or other forms of punishment deemed appropriate under the law.

Legal Procedures and Processes

Due to the fact that military courts are designed to maintain discipline and order within the armed forces, the process in military courts is generally more streamlined and efficient compared to civilian courts placing a priority on expediency.

Military courts usually have a smaller number of judges, and cases are often decided by a panel of military officers rather than a single judge yet the rules of evidence in military courts are less stringent, allowing for more flexibility in admitting evidence. 

More elaborate and formal processes are followed in civilian courts. The cases are typically heard by a single judge or a jury, and the rules of evidence are stricter. Civilian courts also provide more opportunities for appeals, allowing for a more thorough review of the case.

Rights and Protections

Military courts have a different set of rules and procedures. You still have some rights and protections but they aren’t as extensive as those in civilian courts. For instance, in military courts, the right to a jury trial isn’t guaranteed. Instead, a panel of military officers, known as a court-martial, decides your guilt or innocence.

The rights to confront and cross-examine witnesses may be limited in certain circumstances, and the rules of evidence may be more flexible. The military courts are designed to maintain discipline and order within the military, and as such, the rights and protections afforded to individuals may differ in order to serve this purpose.

In civilian courts, you’re entitled to certain fundamental rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to a fair and public trial, the right to legal representation, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against you. These rights are aimed at ensuring a fair and impartial trial, where the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. 

The civilian courts also adhere to strict rules of evidence, that only relevant and reliable evidence is presented.

Composition of the Court

In both military and civilian courts, there are key personnel responsible for ensuring justice is served. In a military court, the composition typically includes military officers who’ve legal training and experience. These officers serve as judges, prosecutors, and defense counsels.

  • The Judge: Often referred to as a military judge, is responsible for overseeing the proceedings and ensuring a fair trial. 
  • The Prosecutor: They represent the interests of the government and present evidence against the accused. 
  • The Defense Counsel: Representing the accused and presenting arguments and evidence in their defense.

In civilian courts, the composition is similar, but the individuals have different titles.

  • The Judge: They are usually a civilian judge, who’s appointed or elected to preside over the proceedings. 
  • The Prosecutor: Typically a lawyer from the district attorney’s office.
  • The Defense Counsel: A private attorney hired by the accused or assigned by the court if the accused can’t afford one.

Consequences and Sentencing

In military courts, the focus is on maintaining discipline and order within the armed forces. As a result, the consequences for violating military laws can be more severe than those in civilian courts. Military courts have the authority to impose punishments such as demotion, loss of pay, confinement, and even dishonorable discharge. These punishments aim to deter military personnel from committing offenses and ensure proper conduct within the military hierarchy.

The consequences and sentencing in civilian courts generally revolve around rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Civilian courts often employ alternative sentencing options, such as probation, community service, or rehabilitation programs. The goal is to address the underlying issues that led to criminal behavior and provide opportunities for individuals to learn from their mistakes and become law-abiding citizens.

In both military and civilian courts, the severity of the offense, the circumstances surrounding the case, and the defendant’s criminal history are taken into consideration during sentencing. Their key difference lies in the underlying objectives of the respective legal systems: maintaining discipline within the military versus promoting rehabilitation and reintegration in civilian society.


These are the key differences between military and civilian courts. While both serve the purpose of delivering justice, military courts are distinct in their jurisdiction, legal procedures, rights and protections, composition, and consequences.

Whether you find yourself involved in a military or civilian court, you must be aware of your rights and the specific processes that govern each jurisdiction.