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Different Australian Courts - How Do They Work?

7 minute read

There are many different levels of Courts and Tribunals in Australia and you may have wondered how they all work. Each Court and Tribunal has its own special function and deals with distinct matters at both federal and state levels. Here is a brief outline of the different Courts and Tribunals you may come across in Australia.

Australia’s Federal Courts

Australia has four principle federal courts. These are:

  • High Court of Australia – The High Court of Australia is the highest court in the Australian Judicial system, with its origins in the Australian Constitution and the highest Court of Appeal. The functions of the High Court are to interpret and apply the law of Australia, to decide cases of special federal significance including challenges to the constitutional validity of laws and to hear appeals from all Australian Courts in any matter including civil and criminal matters.

  • Federal Court of Australia – This Court hears matters concerning bankruptcy, corporations, industrial relations, native title, taxation and trade practices laws and appeals from certain judgements of the Federal Circuit Court. The Court's jurisdiction is broad covering almost all civil matters arising under Australian federal law and some summary and indictable criminal matters.

  • Family Court of Australia – This court hears cases about family disputes such as parenting issues, divorce and division of property. It also hears appeals from the Federal Circuit Court concerning family matters. This court is in every state except Western Australia where family matters are heard at the state level.

  • Federal Circuit Court of Australia – The jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court has grown since its inception and broadly includes family law and child support, administrative law, admiralty law, bankruptcy, copyright, human rights, industrial law, migration, privacy and trade practices. The court shares those jurisdictions with the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Court of Australia. Some work in those jurisdictions continues to be done in state and territory courts also.

State Courts

  • Magistrates Court – This is the first level of the Queensland Courts system and is sometimes called the Local Court. Most criminal cases are first heard in this court and generally most civil actions as well. The Magistrate Courts have no jury and therefore the Magistrate will make all decisions in criminal matters and deliver a verdict, usually a fine or punishment. A person charged with a criminal offence must first be brought before the Magistrates Court as soon as possible. It deals with a range of offences such as traffic infringements, minor offences - such as shoplifting or disorderly behaviour - and more serious offences such as burglary, assault, fraud and drugs. If the case is more serious, a committal hearing will occur to determine if the case should be heard in a higher court. It deals with domestic violence matters and also child protection orders. Magistrate’s courts also include the Children’s Court, Coroner’s Court, and Industrial Magistrates. The Court also deals with civil cases if the amount in dispute is $150,000 or less.

  • District Court – This court is the second tier or next level in the hierarchy and can hear appeals from the Magistrates Court. It deals with civil cases between people and organisations involving amounts between $150,000 and $750,000. It also deals with serious crimes such as robbery, rape, dangerous driving and fraud. Criminal Trials in the District Court will involve a jury. It also has responsibility for dealing with serious cases involving defendants under 17 years of age in the Children’s Court Queensland and the Planning and Environment Court.

  • County Court – This court is Victoria’s principal trial court and sits at the same level as the District Court in all states except Tasmania. It hears both criminal, common law, commercial and civil matters.

  • Supreme Court – This is the highest state court and has two divisions, the Trial Division and Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal deals with cases heard in lower courts and cases are heard by three or five judges. The Trial Division deals with civil disputes involving people and organisations over $750,000. It also deals with criminal offences such as murder, manslaughter and serious drug offences. This division has a jury comprising of twelve ordinary citizens who determine if the accused is guilty or not guilty.


  • Administrative Appeals Tribunal – Independent body which reviews administrative decisions made by the Australian Government ministers, officials, authorities and other tribunals.

  • Australian Competition Tribunal – Hears application of review put forward by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

  • Commonwealth Courts Portal – Online services providing information about Federal Court cases.

  • Copyright Tribunal of Australia – Inquires into the amount of royalty payable with the recording of musical works. It also determines the granting of licences and remuneration costs.

  • Defence Force Discipline Appeal Tribunal – Hears and determines appeals to service offences by Australian Defence Force personnel.

  • Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal – Determines pay and allowance for regular and reserve members.

  • Fair Work Commission – Resolves workplace issues, disputes and dismissals.

  • National Native Title Tribunal – Develops an understanding of the native title, reach and rights to land and waters.

  • Veterans’ Review Board – Reviews decisions about repatriation pensions and attendant allowances.

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