While each Australian state’s systems differ slightly, what is common throughout Australia is the tiered court system, with the Supreme Court in each State or Territory having jurisdiction to hear cases of the most serious kind and the High Court of Australia having final jurisdiction, or ‘the last say’.
The Local Court
The Local Court of New South Wales is the lowest court in the judicial hierarchy of the Australian state of New South Wales. The Local Court of New South Wales hears cases of a monetary value of up to $100,000, giving it the jurisdiction to deal with the majority of minor civil and criminal matters.
Two divisions exist within the Local Court – The Children’s Court and the Coroners Court – which may hear more specific matters.
- The Children’s Court deals with alleged offenders who are under the age of 18, and members of the general public are not allowed to attend these cases.
- The Coroners Court investigates violent or unnatural deaths, suspicious fires and/or explosions, but it cannot make orders to punish offenders. If a serious criminal offence becomes in question, the Coroner must terminate their proceedings and refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, where it can be heard in a higher court.
For most cases, the Local Court is both the starting and finishing point, though if an appeal is made against the Local Court’s decision, the matter is passed to a higher court such as the District Court or the Supreme Court of the state.
The District Court
The District Court is the intermediate court in the judicial hierarchy of the state of New South Wales. It may hear most serious criminal offences, with the exception of charges of murder and treason, which must be dealt with by the Supreme Court. Additionally, the District Court deals with appeals against the decisions of the Local Court and may hear civil claims generally limited to claims less than $750,000.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest state court in New South Wales. It holds unlimited jurisdiction over all civil matters and typically handles serious criminal matters such as murder and treason. The Supreme Court may also hear appeals from the Lower Court and District Court of NSW. If judgements from the Supreme Court are subject to appeal, the matter is then transferred to a division of the Supreme Court, either the Court of Appeal or the Court of Criminal Appeal.
The Court of Appeal / Court of Criminal Appeal
These courts, which are divisions of the Supreme Court, specifically hear cases that have been appealed from either the Supreme Court or the District Court. These appeals are passed to either the Court of Appeal or the Court of Criminal Appeal depending on the nature of the offence; civil matters are handled in the former, while criminal matters are handled in the latter.
To appeal to the High Court of Australia from the Court of Appeal or the Court of Criminal Appeal, special leave must be granted by the High Court.
The High Court of Australia
The High Court is the judicial pinnacle of Australia, and its role can be well explained by Sir Owen Dixon, the Chief Justice of Australia:
“The High Court’s jurisdiction is divided in its exercise between constitutional and federal cases which loom so largely in the public eye, and the great body of litigation between man and man, or even man and government, which has nothing to do with the Constitution, and which is the principal preoccupation of the court.”
In other words, the High Court can decide cases of special federal significance, especially those that concern the constitutional validity of laws. Additionally, the High Court can hear appeals from the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal. The High Court’s decision is final and is unable to be challenged.