audiencia (oudyānˈsyä) [key], royal court of justice in Spain and the Spanish Empire, varying greatly in its form and function but having some administrative as well as judicial capacity. Use of the term also extended to the court's jurisdictional area. Originally a court of appeal primarily, the audiencia had evolved by the late 15th cent. into a tribunal of two chambers, one for civil and the other for criminal jurisdiction. Generally at least four oidores (judges or auditors) exercised judicial power within a district. The system of territorial and regional audiencias was instituted in Spanish America in the early 16th cent. to help counterbalance the independence and haphazard administration of the conquistadors. The colonial audiencia pretorial, however, differed widely from its peninsular counterpart in exercising executive and legislative, as well as judicial functions, and serving in a sense as the core of Spanish colonial government. As a chief organ of royal authority with the right of appeal to the Council of the Indies, it kept close watch on the acts of the civil administrators. The courts were at first powerful enough to uphold the rights of private individuals, but in the course of the 17th and 18th cent. they became corrupt and inefficient.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.