Confusing even at the best of times, a country's legal and judical system can seem a complicated web made up of many different entities with separate ( and often seemingly conflicting ) areas of responsibility – we will do our best to simplify and explain these below.
The Spanish constitution is classed as an “Independent judiciary”, with the judicial system overseen and regulated by the Consejo General del Poder Judicial - usually shortened to the CGPJ (the General Council for Judicial Power). It is made up of members which are appointed by Congress and the Senate, and are able to serve for now more than a 5 year term.
The CGPJ is presided over by the President of the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo) which is the highest court in Spain and which has jurisdiction over the country as a whole(The only exception is for matters relating to the Spanish Constitution itself, which are dealt with by the Constitutional Court, the Tribunal Constitucional). The Supreme Court hears appeals against sentences issued by the National Court and the regional courts, and is also responsible for trying any case against a member of parliament including government ministers and the Prime Minister.
The National Court (Audiencia Nacional) also has jurisdiction over the country as a whole, but hears criminal cases of national or international importance, and civil cases involving the central administration.
Contained within the National Court are the Juzgados Centrales de lo Penal,(Central Criminal Courts), which try national cases where sentencing would not exceed five years, and the Juzgados Centrales de Instrucción,(Central Instruction Courts), which prepare cases for the National Court and the Central Criminal Court.
The judiciary is structured on a Hierarchy, dividing all Spanish territory into autonomous communities, provinces, judicial districts and municipalities. The courts are also organised into four categories: civil, criminal, social and administrative. Appeals against the decisions of lower courts are made to the higher court, as far up as the Supreme Court.
Each autonomous community then has its own High Court of Justice, Tribunal Superior, which is the highest court in the region and the last court of appeal. The autonomous government has no power over the region’s Tribunal Superior for the region, which is a court of the state.
The Provincial Court, the Audiencia Provincial, is the highest court in each province. It tries civil and the more serious criminal cases, and also hears appeals against sentences issued by the lower courts.
Other courts which exist on a provincial basis are the Mercantile Courts (Juzgados de lo Mercantil), Criminal Courts (de lo Penal) – for sentencing below five years – Administrative Courts (Contencioso-Administrativo), Prison Vigilance (Vigilancia Penitenciaria), Labour Courts (de lo Social) and Juvenile Courts (de Menores).
The judicial districts – a unit of territory made up of one or more bordering municipalities, and which may coincide with the provincial demarcation - have First Instance Courts (Juzgados de Primera Instancia), which hear civil cases, and Instruction Courts (Juzgados de Instrucción), which prepare the criminal cases to be tried in higher courts.
The municipalities which have neither of these, will have a Justice of the Peace, Juzgados de Paz, for minor civil cases and, often, acting as civil registry.