All states in Australia have a system of lower courts located in most major towns and metropolitan centres. In New South Wales it is called the Local Court (previously called Courts of Petty Sessions), and is established under the Local Court Act 2007. In other states and territories the lower court is called the Magistrates Court.
Local Court hearings are presided over by judicial officers called magistrates. (Judicial officers in higher courts are called judges or justices). Magistrates are appointed from members of the public service, practising barristers, solicitors or academics. Magistrates have legal qualifications and are referred to as ‘Your Honour’.
The Local Court conducts hearings in 155 locations across New South Wales, dealing with the vast majority of cases that come before the courts. The Local Court hears minor civil matters involving amounts of money up to $100,000, and also the majority of criminal and summary prosecutions. The Court also conducts committal proceedings to determine whether or not indictable offences are to be committed to the District and Supreme Courts. There is no jury in any civil or criminal proceedings in the Local Court. The Local Court also deals with applications for apprehended violence orders.
The majority (95%) of criminal cases commence in the Local Court. One of the most important functions of the Local Court is to conduct committal hearings for indictable offences (more serious offences). A committal hearing is a hearing to determine whether the prosecution can establish that there is sufficient evidence of a case against the accused person for the prosecution to proceed to trial in the District Court or the Supreme Court before a judge or a judge and jury. If the accused person pleads guilty to an indictable offence at the committal hearing, the Local Court can commit the person to a higher court for sentencing.
All states, except Tasmania, have an intermediate level of court between the lower courts and the Supreme Courts. There is no intermediate level court for the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory. In Victoria, the intermediate court is called the County Court; in other states it is called the District Court. These courts have both criminal and civil jurisdiction, and are presided over by judges.
The NSW District Court is established under the District Court Act 1973 and sits regularly in regional areas. It is the largest trial court in Australia. The NSW District Court has a wide jurisdiction and is able to hear matters such as:
- serious criminal offences including drug offences, manslaughter and serious sexual offences, but not murder or treason
- civil cases such as debt recovery or personal injury claims involving amounts of money up to $750 000 (or larger amounts if the parties agree to the District Court dealing with the matter). The court has an unlimited jurisdiction in claims for damages for personal injury arising out of a motor vehicle accident
- appeals from the Local Court and the Children’s Court.
The District Court hears most of the serious criminal cases that come before the courts in New South Wales. Criminal cases are heard before a judge and a jury of 12 citizens (unless the accused person elects to have the matter heard before a judge alone). Civil cases sometimes have a jury of four citizens to decide questions of fact and to assess damages, but the use of juries in civil trials is becoming less common.
Each state and territory has a Supreme Court, presided over by a Chief Justice. The NSW Supreme Court was first established in 1823, and is now regulated by the Supreme Court Act 1970 (NSW). It is the largest superior court of general jurisdiction in Australia.
The Supreme Court hears serious civil cases involving amounts of money over $750 000 and hears serious criminal cases involving murder, treason and piracy. The areas of civil law dealt with by the Supreme Court include:
- contract and negligence cases
- equity (such as matters involving trusts)
- probate (matters involving the validity of wills and the functions of executors of wills, or administrators if the deceased person died without a will)
- admiralty (matters involving ships)
- commercial (such as building disputes).
The Supreme Court may also hear matters under Commonwealth laws where the Supreme Court has been vested with federal jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeal and Court of Criminal Appeal hear appeals from decisions made by most of the courts of New South Wales, certain decisions from the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal and from decisions made by a single judge of the Supreme Court (see Appeals).