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Unit 1 The Australian legal system: Topic 5 Courts in the Federal and State system


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The federal court system
The state court system
The trial process
Legal terminology


To look at the court system in Australia including the state and fede ral system go to Open Court* (see below for instructions).

Here is a diagram of the Australian court system.

Diagram of the Australian court system

The federal court system

The High Court

At the top of the federal court hierarchy is the High Court of Australia. This court has both an original jurisdiction and an appellant jurisdiction. It is empowered to interpret the Australian Constitution and to hear disputes:

The High Court is also the final court of appeal. It has the ultimate authority on matters of law which have been decided in the courts. It can hear appeals against decisions made by:

The Federal Court

The Federal Court was established in 1976 and it has two divisions:

  1. the Industrial Division (which replaced the Australian Industrial Court) and
  2. the General Division (which replaced the Federal Court of Bankruptcy).

The General Division deals with bankruptcy and is also responsible for the enforcement of specific federal legislation (eg the Trade Practices Act).

The Federal Court has both original and appellant jurisdiction in matters that involve federal legislation. It also has the power to hear appeals from the Supreme Courts of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

The Family Court of Australia

The Family Court was established in 1975. It has jurisdiction over family matters. It sits in all state capitals and in some country areas. It deals with divorce, arrangements for the care of children, division of property over $700,000.00 and financial support (maintenance) for a spouse.

This court has both original and appellant jurisdiction. The original case is heard by a single judge. An appeal is heard by the Full Family Court which is made up of three judges.

Federal Magistrates Court

These were established in 2000 to deal with federal civil law disputes in a cheaper faster manner. The majority of their cases deal with division of property in family law matters where the value of the property is under $700,000.00.

They also deal with cases involving migration disputes, bankruptcy, consumer protection and safety breaches, and copyright matters.

Federal Tribunals

Due to the large number of disputes coming before the courts, semi-judicial bodies known as tribunals and commissions have been set up. They take over some of the functions exercised by the courts. The officials who sit on these tribunals and commissions have restricted powers. There are three you should know about, the:

  1. Administrative Appeals Tribunal
  2. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
  3. Australian Competition Tribunal.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal

This tribunal hears appeals from the public on decisions made by officers of Federal Government Departments or agencies. Appeals against State Government Departments or agencies are outside their jurisdiction. There are also several states which have an Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

This is an incorporated body consisting of a chairman, deputy chairman and a number of other members. The Commission has the power to administer the Trade Practices Act. It can bring about proceedings for contravention of the Act and initiate prosecutions for offences against the consumer protection provisions of the Act.

The Australian Competition Tribunal

This tribunal comprises a president and a number of deputy presidents, all of whom must be judges of the Federal Court but not of the High Court. Some members of the public may be co-opted onto the Tribunal because of their expertise in the area. The Tribunal is the appeal body from decisions made by the Trade Practices Commission.

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The state court system

In addition to the federal court hierarchy there is also a state court hierarchy. Generally speaking, each state has superior, intermediate and inferior courts. The names of specific courts vary from state to state and you should make sure that you know the names of the important courts in your state.

The Supreme Court

The highest court in the state system is known as the Supreme Court (Supreme Court of New South Wales, Supreme Court of Tasmania etc). The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory also have a Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has both an original and an appellant jurisdiction. Although it is at the top of the hierarchy in its own state, it is below the High Court of Australia (which is, of course, a federal court). The High Court has the power to hear appeals from the state Supreme Courts.

The Supreme Court administers criminal law, common law and equity law. In criminal law this court hears the most serious charges (eg rape and murder). In civil law it usually hears cases involving a large amount of money. Its jurisdiction is unlimited as to the amount of damages it can award.

The District Court

At the intermediate level in many states you will find District Courts. These have both an original and an appellant jurisdiction. They hear both criminal and civil law cases and they also hear cases which are not serious enough for the Supreme Court but are too serious for the Magistrate’s Court. As of January 2006 the maximum limitation on the jurisdiction of the civil division of the District Court is $750,000 for general matters but there is no limit to the amount it can award in relation to motor accidents on a public street.

To see a case that is being run in the NSW District Court go to Open Court* (popup) and listen to the people who are involved in a case.

Magistrates and Local Courts

The lowest courts in the state court hierarchy are known in some states as the Magistrates and Local Courts. These courts probably hear the biggest volume of disputes. They are presided over by magistrates (or Justices of the Peace) rather than by judges. They have both criminal and civil jurisdictions. They also have preliminary hearings to determine whether there is enough evidence to commit a person to trial in the Supreme Court. These courts are known by a number of different names in the various states. As of January 2006, in New South Wales, the local court has a maximum monetary limitation in its civil jurisdiction of $60 000.

Where the amount claimed is under $10,000.00 the claim is heard in the Small Claims section of the Local Court where a simplified procedure applies.

To see a case that is being run in the NSW Local Court go to Open Court* (popup) and listen to the people who are involved in a case.

Specialised courts and Tribunals

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Go to your textbook and read the chapter on legal institutions. You might want to try looking up in the index terms such as ‘Courts’.

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The trial process

The Australian court system is based on the English system. The trial process in this system is known as the adversary system because there are two opponents in combat. In medieval times disputes were solved by battle till death.

The trial process evolved from these early beginnings to the current system, whereby lawyers representing each party engage in verbal persuasion to convince the court of their side of the case.

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Legal terminology

To understand the way in which the trial process works, you need to know a number of technical terms and the functions of the various court officials.

To listen to what the people in this list do in court go to Open Court* (popup).


the person who appeals against an action/decision of the court; this person can be either the plaintiff or the defendant


a Court officer who serves writs on persons to appear in court and also seizes property to satisfy a judgment debt;


appear in court to argue a case for a client

clerk of the court:

assists the judge


the person against whom the action is brought


presides over cases heard in the courts superior to the Magistrates Courts


consists of 12 people in a criminal trial and six people in a civil trial (where there has been a request for a jury—civil trials are usually heard before a judge)

Justice of the Peace:

a person appointed as an officer of the Crown; he or she can only sit on the Magistrate’s Court with another Justice of the Peace; in other words, either one magistrate or two Justices of the Peace can hear cases in the Magistrate’s Court


a barrister or solicitor who must have at least five years experience as a legal practitioner


the person bringing the legal action and seeking to obtain redress against the person who committed the alleged civil wrong


the person who is successful in the original action, and can be either the plaintiff or the defendant

sheriff of the Supreme Court:

an officer of both the Supreme Court and District Court; this person is responsible for the parties and witnesses in court, for empowering the jury, for serving court documents and for supervising all court orders including the seizure of property to be sold to satisfy a judgment debt


interview clients and take instructions; solicitors can also appear in court on behalf of their clients

the usher/court orderly

the person responsible for escorting the witnesses to the witness box and for passing documents between parties in the court

Running the Open Court application

Macintosh users

For the Open Court application to work correctly on the Macintosh OS X platform the “Classic” environment (Mac OS 9) must be installed. To run the Open Court presentation:

  1. Double click on the comm._law_det disk icon.
  2. Double click on the applets folder.
  3. Double click on the OpenCourt Icon.

Windows user

For Firefox:

  1. Right click the Open court link and select Copy Link Location
  2. Click Start then Run to open the Run dialog box
  3. Paste the link into the Open area of the Run dialog box and click OK

For Internet Explorer:

  1. Click the Open court link
  2. Click Run on the “Do you want to run or save this file dialog box”
  3. Click Run again

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