What is a Tribunal?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tribunal is a committee or court which is convened to address a special issue. Tribunals are not part of the regular legal system, but they are usually established by the government, and their results are legally binding. Tribunals may be assembled for a number of different reasons, and their proceedings can be open or closed, depending on why they were convened and where the tribunal is located. If the group's meetings are closed, a formal written declaration summarizing the results may be published once all the hearings and deliberations are over.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

A classic reason to convene a tribunal is in a situation where the international community wishes to hold hearings pertaining to genocide, acts of war, and other events. In these cases, a tribunal is used to address a specific event, and it is convened on an international level to avoid accusations of manipulation or favoritism. For example, if a war took place in Britain, a tribunal convened in Britain might be accused of leaning towards the British side when it comes to hearings, while an independent tribunal could judge the situation without accusations of bias.

Tribunals are also sometimes assembled to conduct hearings into social issues. In these cases, nothing is on trial and the committee acts as a group of fact finders. They may conduct independent investigations, call witnesses, and read through reports by other groups in order to generate a report of their own. For example, a public transit tribunal might determine that public transit is lacking, and provide suggestions for implementing a more effective and accessible public transit system.

Committees may also be established to look into matters of religious concern. Within some religious sects, members may prefer to work out disputes and investigate suspicious activities with a tribunal, rather than in the community at large, and committee members usually come from the hierarchy of the church. The results of their meetings may not be legally binding, depending on how and why the tribunal was assembled, but they are binding within the church itself.

Usually people are invited to serve on a tribunal because they have experience or skills which are deemed used. Sometimes, members are invited from the general public. People who wish to attend proceedings may be required to file a request to do so, as often the hearings are crowded and seats for observers are provided on a first come, first serve basis. Space is also set aside for members of the media at tribunals which are public, so that the media can report on the progress of hearings, discussions, and deliberations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I connect the tribunals with bodies established out of the judiciary's hierarchy for a special purpose. Tribunals that come in my mind include the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and Nuremberg.

There are also national/domestic tribunals which deal with special matters nationally, e.g., the British employment tribunal and land tribunal in Tanzania.


@indemnifyme - I associate tribunals with international issues, too. I think the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word is the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.

Although, the Nuremberg Trials didn't exactly meet the standards of neutrality discussed in the article. They were held in Germany, where many of the war criminals came from. And they were held by the Allies, who were the victors in the war!

Honestly though, I don't care that the Nuremberg Trials weren't especially neutral, because war criminals should be punished and I don't really care who does it.

@strawCake - I'm not surprised that happened at your mom's church. Nothing gets people worked up like religion.

Anyway, I personally associate the word tribunal with the classic definition the article mentioned. When I think of a tribunal, I think of international issues like war. Or maybe something pertaining to the military? Either way, the word tribunal definitely sounds very, very official to me.

So it basically sounds like a tribunal and a committee are the same thing. And they can be convened for varying reasons that range from extremely serious (a justice tribunal for genocide and international war) to the not as serious (a committee to talk about public transit), as long as it's a special issue.

And really, even if the issue isn't super serious, committee or tribunal meetings can get pretty heated. My mom's church convened a committee to discuss some church issues recently, and it almost resulted in several people leaving their congregation!

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