Australian Courts and Divisions

Australia  has a well-developed and sophisticated court hierarchy that is composed of federal courts, and a state and territory court structure. Take note that while each state and territory’s court hierarchy and national-level federal courts are independent of each other, they have one final court of appeal, which is the High Court of Australia. Below is an overview of the various Australian courts.

Federal courts

Federal courts have authority over law approved by the Federal Parliament.

  • High Court of Australia
    The High Court of Australia is the highest-ranking court; the ultimate court of appeal of the entire Australian legal system. It hears appeals from federal, family and supreme courts, but also has original jurisdiction, which is the authority to hear a case for the first time. The High Court also has the authority to make a judicial review over laws approved by the Federal and State Parliaments. Since the High Court is the ultimate court of appeal, its decisions are binding on all courts in the country. There are no appeals for High Court decisions.
  • Federal Court of Australia
    The Federal Court is a superior court where most civil disputes overseen by federal law are dealt with, along with a few summary criminal cases. The Federal Court, however, doesn't handle family law matters. It does have appellate jurisdiction over the verdicts of single judges in the Federal Court and Federal Magistrates Court, and some state and territory courts. The Federal Court is equal to the Family Court of Australia and superior to the Federal Magistrates Court.
  • Family Court of Australia
    When it comes to family law, the Family Court is the country's superior court. The court covers matters related to family law (e.g. children of de facto relationships, marriage-related cases) in all states and territories except Western Australia, and shares the authority with the Federal Magistrates Court. The Family Court also handles specific cases like those related to the Hague Abduction Convention and the international relocation of children.
  • Federal Magistrates Court of Australia
    The Federal Magistrates Court handles less complex cases previously handled by the Federal and Family Court to help with their workload. The Federal Magistrates Court's jurisdiction includes bankruptcy, family law, unlawful discrimination, consumer protection, privacy, migration, copyright and industrial law.
  • Federal Tribunals
    Australia has also established several federal tribunals to handle cases in specific areas like immigration, industrial relations and human rights, among others. These federal tribunals include the following:
    • Administrative Appeals Tribunal
    • Migration Review Tribunal
    • Refugee Review Tribunal
    • Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

State and territory courts

Each state and territory has its own court hierarchy which operates autonomously from each other, although the authority of each differs.

  • Supreme Courts
    All states have a supreme court, which serves as the highest appellate court at the state level. There are some states that have a court of criminal appeal. These supreme courts have both original and appellate jurisdictions, which handle criminal and civil cases.
  • District or County Courts
    District or Country Courts usually handle the more serious cases. Such courts are presided over by a judge, who interprets and decides on the law. For serious cases, a jury--usually of 12 people--is brought in to decide if a defendant is guilty or innocent of the charges against them.
  • Magistrates or Local Courts
    Simpler civil matters and summary cases are usually handled by Magistrates or Local Courts (a.k.a. courts of petty sessions), which are called such because of the magistrates that preside over them. However, in Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania, there is only a Magistrates Court under the Supreme Court.
  • Specialist courts and tribunals
    Like the Family Court, there are also specialist courts in certain states and territories. These include the Children's Court in New South Wales (handles criminal offences made by children), the Coroner's Court (a court of law where the coroner may call for witnesses), Industrial Relations Commission (regulates employment and industrial issues), and the Dust Diseases Tribunal (handles claims on dust-related illnesses).