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Australian court system

With Local, District, State and Federal levels the Australian Court System can be very confusing. Curious about where to go and how they all link up? Find out here.

Submitted 5/4/2006 By joanne Views 49246 Comments 0 Updated 6/2/2009


Photographer : DWZ @ flickr

The Australian Court system is made up a hierarchy of courts that range from the local to the federal level. Each court has a set jurisdiction. This means that each court has been granted specific power to only deal with certain types of legal matters. The Australian Court System has two main arms; State and Commonwealth.

State court system

Each State has established it own independent system of courts. State and Territory courts have original jurisdiction over all matters that are brought under State or Territory laws. Within each State the courts are divided into 3 levels; (from lowest to highest)

  • Lower courts (local courts)
  • Intermediate Courts—district or county
  • Supreme courts

Determining the court in which a case should be heard, depends upon how complex a civil matter is, or the seriousness of the criminal offence. The more complex or serious the case is the higher the court level. Decisions that are made by courts at the lower levels can be appealed against at a higher level. The same procedure for appeals applies at the Commonwealth level.

Lower courts

Original jurisdiction: lower courts hear minor civil, criminal and family law cases. Their jurisdiction is limited in civil cases by the amount of money they can award a successful party, and in criminal cases—by the size of the penalty they can impose on a guilty party.

Decisions of the court are made by a single judge.

Intermediate courts

Original jurisdiction: intermediate courts deal with more serious criminal offences and with more complex or expensive civil disputes.

Civil cases are decided by a single judge. Criminal cases are heard by a judge and a jury.

Supreme courts of Australia

Original jurisdiction: Supreme courts deal with major civil litigation and serious criminal cases. The Supreme courts can also exercise federal jurisdiction in certain matters.

Jurisdiction to hear appeals: the Supreme Court hears appeals from the lower State courts or from a decision by the Supreme Court that was made by a single judge.

Commonwealth courts

The Federal Court of Australia

Original jurisdiction: the Federal Court has original jurisdiction over all federal matters that are granted to it by the Commonwealth Parliament. This includes for example bankruptcy law, administrative law, corporations law, industrial relations and taxation law.

Jurisdiction to hear appeals: the Federal Court of Australia can hear appeals from decisions of the Supreme courts of the Australian territories, and the decisions of state supreme courts when exercising federal jurisdiction. It also hears appeals from decisions of single judges of the Federal court.

Family Court of Australia

Original Jurisdiction: The Family Court of Australia is a specialist court dealing only with family law matters, these include; divorce, settling of property disputes between divorced persons, and disputes over the custody of and access to children.

The High Court

The High Court is the supreme federal court. It stands at the top of the Australian court hierarchy and its decision is final!

The High Court Bench is composed of a Chief Justice and six other judges. Judges can either hear cases as individuals or as three, five and seven person panels. A decision must be reached by a majority of judges.

Original jurisdiction: The High Court has original jurisdiction in all matters;
  • in which the Commonwealth government is a party
  • between states, or between residents of different states, or between a state and a resident of another state:
  • of interpretation and application of the Australian Federal Constitution. This involves review of laws that have been passed by the state and federal parliaments and review of government actions to determine whether they are constitutionally valid.
  • that arise under an international treaty or that affect consuls or other representatives of other countries

Jurisdiction to appeal: The High Court can hear appeals, by special leave—of decisions of state, federal and territory courts—in all matters.

How do I know this?

Australian Government Attorney-Generals Department: Australia’s Legal System

Law Institute Victoria: Australia’s Legal System