From the very beginning of the Church’s life, disputes arose among her members. First the Apostles then, after them, the bishops had to find ways to resolve these disputes: unresolved disputes only fester. Throughout the Church’s history, then, the various ways in which disputes were in fact resolved gave birth to procedures which were incorporated into what is known today as “Canon Law.” This law, which is constantly developing, has always been intended to ensure that the Catholic community is properly organised. Proper order favours the good of all members of the Church and so keeps her fit for the mission entrusted to her by Christ – to preach the Gospel to all creation. Canon Law is thus intended to ensure that each member’s rights and duties are protected, promoted and enforced. Properly coordinated, the rights and duties of each member of the Church converge in the common good of the whole Church. This common good is not merely some kind of social contract or collective well-being, but the very salvation of souls.
There are various informal ways to fix disputes, e.g., fraternal correction, monitions, mediation, etc., but sometimes, even in the Church, a formal investigation by a Tribunal into the causes and merits of a dispute is required. The Tribunal then come to a decision which is binding on all parties in accordance with the law.
An ecclesiastical Tribunal, like a court of civil law, is where such disputes are processed and resolved. While the term “Tribunal” also refers to the physical building, it refers more properly to the Court of three Judges who hear and decide a case (although sometimes a case is dealt with by a single judge or, more rarely, by a larger panel). In theory, every diocese has the right to have its own Tribunal; it is Catholic because it pertains to and is ruled by the Canon Law of the Catholic Church. It is Interdiocesan because the bishops of the dioceses concerned have agreed to assign to one single Tribunal all judicial cases which arise in their individual jurisdictions.
A Tribunal judges cases using a formal process: the people involved present their allegations, and present witnesses and other evidence to support their claims, they can try and refute the claims of the other people involved, and ultimately the Judges consider all that has been presented, and write a sentence explaining the decision they have reached. Those involved in the case can then challenge this decision before an appeal court or can present new allegations to our Tribunal or to any other competent Tribunal.
This formal process can take some time, which can understandably sometimes cause frustration, but it is important that the procedures are scrupulously followed, since these protect the rights of everyone involved and the wider good of the Church.
Please note that in the United Kingdom decisions of Catholic Tribunals have no civil effects. Our decisions do not affect civil divorce, civil remarriage, legitimacy & inheritance, alimony or child support, or any other aspect of the matters that need to be settled in the civil courts when a relationship fails. Our decisions are purely spiritual ones, and their effects only apply within the Catholic Church. You must therefore have obtained a civil divorce before you can approach our Tribunal.