The term "decree" is used in the legal system to refer to a ruling issued by an authoritative figure. For example, a decree can be a proclamation made by an official such as a head of state and usually denotes a new rule of law. Decrees are also commonly issued by courts of equity. These courts look at cases and determine outcomes based on fairness, instead of focusing solely on the application of law. In some areas, courts of equity operate separately from courts of law, and in other areas, a court of law can handle both legal and equitable resolutions. In the United States, the federal bankruptcy court is one example of a court which functions as a court of equity. Decrees made in courts of equity have the same force of law as rulings made regarding civil and criminal cases in courts of law.
A final decree is generally issued at the conclusion of a specific lawsuit. A temporary decree is referred to as an “interlocutory decree” in the United States and as a “decree nisi” in England. This type of decree is issued before a final ruling is announced and is common in cases that involve the custody of children, adoption, guardianship and divorce. For example, in cases of divorce, interlocutory decrees pronounce that the dissolution of marriage remains provisional until a certain amount of time has passed. As long as no evidence is presented to the court contesting the divorce during this period of time, the temporary decree becomes final.
Once a final decree has been issued, it is filed with the clerk of the court. This document includes a description of the facts obtained during the trial, actions that are required by the participating parties, and an explanation of any legal action that will take place if the orders of the decree are not followed. This record of the judgment is kept on file with the court, and copies are sent to the participating parties.