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Going to court is a complicated and expensive process in Australia. Not only are there different courts in each state, but also there are national courts. So, what’s the difference between each court? And, if you need to start proceedings, which court should you use?

Australia has a unique court system, that is based on the United Kingdom’s Westminster system. However, it was adapted to suit the Australian structure of states and Commonwealth better. This article will give an overview of the court system in Australia and a description of each different level of court within the system.

The Constitution and Australian Courts

Under the Australian Constitution, courts are independent of the other arms of government. Therefore, judicial officers can act without political interference. The Constitution itself creates only the High Court of Australia. However, it gives the Parliament power to create other federal courts and to give power to state and territory courts.

The High Court

As its name suggests, the High Court is the highest court in Australia. It has power over all matters to do with the Constitution. However, it also deals with cases involving international law and all appeals from the lower courts. These appeals occur when the matters involve sufficient public interest or where the lower courts have interpreted the law differently.

The High Court has a chief justice and six justices. It sits mostly in Canberra, with regular sittings in other states. Before 1986, Australians could appeal beyond the High Court, to the United Kingdom’s Privy Council. However, this was only because Australia’s legal system wasn’t considered to be mature enough. Therefore, the option to appeal to a British Court ended with the introduction of the Australia Acts 1986.

The Federal Courts

Along with the High Court, there are three other federal courts in Australia. All are headed by a chief justice. These include the:

Federal Court of Australia

It hears all civil matters arising under federal laws and some criminal cases where the defendant is alleged to have committed a federal crime. The civil matters include:

  • bankruptcy;
  • corporations;
  • industrial relations;
  • native title;
  • taxation; and
  • consumer law.

The Federal Court also hears appeals from the Federal Circuit Court (other than family law matters).

Family Court of Australia

This specialist court in family law deals with family disputes and hears appeals from family law matters of the Federal Circuit Court.  

Federal Circuit Court of Australia

Formerly the Federal Magistrates Court, this court hears less complex disputes in matters including:

  • family law and child support;
  • administrative law;
  • admiralty law;
  • bankruptcy;
  • copyright;
  • human rights;
  • industrial law;
  • migration;
  • privacy; and
  • consumer law.

The State Courts

The hierarchy of courts in each state and territory varies, but all have a generally similar structure. This structure consists of a higher court headed by a chief justice, and intermediate and lower courts below that.  

In New South Wales, for example, there is the Local Court, then the District Court, and the Supreme Court of NSW as the superior court. All hear both civil and criminal matters. On the other hand, the ACT has no intermediate court.

The supreme courts in each state and territory will conduct jury trials for serious major offences such as murder. However, they also hear appeals from lower courts.

Most states and territories also have a Coroner’s Court, which deals with unexplained deaths and fires. There is also commonly a Children’s Court, for matters involving children (defendants aged under 18 at the time of offending).

Key Takeaways

If you need to go to court, it’s important to know how the Australian court system works. You also need to know how the different levels of courts operate and what types of matters are heard by each court. If you have any questions about how the court system works in Australia, or need advice on a legal matter, please call LegalVision’s litigation lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.  

What is the Highest Court in Australia?

The highest court in Australia is the High Court. It is located in the Australian capital, Canberra.

How Does the Court System Work?

Australia’s court system is broken up between state courts and federal courts. Often, the type of legislation which is alleged to have been breached will determine which court a matter is heard in.

What Is the Hierarchy of the Courts?

The hierarchy of courts in each state and territory varies, but all have a generally similar structure. In New South Wales, for example, there is the Local Court, then the District Court, and the Supreme Court of NSW as the superior court.


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