Jurisdiction and hierarchy of courts

Courts deal with different matters depending on their jurisdiction and place in the court hierarchy.

Jurisdiction

Within the state and federal courts systems, there are a number of different courts. Each court has a particular ‘jurisdiction’, which is the scope of a court’s authority to decide matters. The term comes from Latin: ‘juris’ – the law and ‘dictio’ – to say or declare. The jurisdiction given to a court will usually depend on the purpose for which the court was established, which is usually defined in legislation. Which court will have jurisdiction over a case may be based on geographical area, the type of parties who appear, the amount of money involved in the case, or the severity of the maximum penalty for an offence. For example, in NSW, a crime for which the maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment will probably be heard by the District Court or the Supreme Court, while a crime for which the maximum penalty is only a fine will be heard by the Local Court.

Some courts have a specialised jurisdiction (for example, the Children’s Court and Family Courts) so they deal with cases only in a narrow range of topics, while other courts have a general jurisdiction (such as the state Supreme Courts) to deal with a wide variety of cases. The Supreme Courts of the states and territories are courts of general jurisdiction in that every matter is within the general jurisdiction of a Supreme Court unless specifically excluded.

Another distinction in jurisdiction is between 'original jurisdiction' and 'appellate jurisdiction'. The court where a particular matter is heard for the first time has ‘original jurisdiction’. If there is to be an appeal against the decision of the original court, the court that can hear the appeal has ‘appellate jurisdiction’. See Appeals for more information.

Hierarchy of courts

The Commonwealth has three levels of general federal courts:

  • High Court
  • Federal Court
  • Federal Circuit Court.

These courts were established to hear and determine matters arising under Commonwealth laws. The Commonwealth Constitution established the High Court of Australia, which is the highest court in Australia.

The High Court is at the top of the hierarchy of federal courts. It is also at the top of the hierarchy of state courts, because decisions of state Supreme Courts may be able to be appealed to the High Court.

Each of the states (except for Tasmania) also has three levels of courts of general jurisdiction: the state Supreme Court, the District Court (called County Court in Victoria) and the Local Court. Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory do not have an intermediate level court.

Courts are classified as either superior courts or inferior courts. The principal Australian superior courts are:

  • High Court
  • Federal Court of Australia
  • Family Court of Australia
  • Supreme Courts of the states and territories
  • Land and Environment Court of New South Wales
  • Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales
  • Industrial Court of Queensland.

All courts that are not superior courts are inferior courts. Intermediate courts (such as the District Court of New South Wales) are therefore technically inferior courts. Magistrates make decisions in the lower courts (the state local courts and the Federal Circuit Court).

The higher in the hierarchy a court is, the greater the authority their decisions have for other courts. See also Precedent and evidence.

Tribunals

In both state and federal systems there are tribunals which operate in a more informal way to reach decisions on civil matters: see Tribunals for more information.