Australian court hierarchy

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Courtroom 1 in the High Court in Canberra.

The Australian court hierarchy consists of a variety of courts and tribunals at both the federal and state and territory levels, with the High Court being the highest court in the Australian judicial system.[1] A single body[2] of Australian common law is applied in the various Australian courts, and ultimately determined by the High Court now that appeals to the (British) Judicial Committee of the Privy Council have been abolished.[3]

Superior and inferior courts[edit]

The High Court has described the concept of a superior court (and associated 'notions derived from the position of pre-Judicature common law courts') as having 'no ready application in Australia to federal courts.'[4] Despite this, Australian courts are frequently characterised as either 'superior' or 'inferior.' The Federal Court[5] and the Supreme Courts of each State and Territory are generally considered to be superior courts.

There is no single definition of the term 'superior court' (or 'superior court of record'). In many respects Australian superior courts are similar to the Senior Courts of England and Wales. In Australia, superior courts generally:

  • have unlimited jurisdiction in law and equity,[6] or at least are not subject to jurisdictional limits as to the remedies they may grant;
  • determine appeals, at least as part of their jurisdiction;
  • are composed of judges whose individual decisions are not subject to judicial review[7] or appeal to a single judge;
  • are composed of judges entitled to the style and title The Honourable Justice; and
  • regularly publish their decisions in written form.

Inferior courts are those beneath superior courts in the appellate hierarchy, and are generally seen to include the Magistrates and District (or County) Court of each State as well as the Federal Circuit Court. Inferior courts are typically characterised by:

  • jurisdiction conferred by statute and limited as to subject matter or the quantum of relief; and
  • amenability to judicial review by a single judge of a superior court where a right of appeal is not available.

Federal courts[edit]

These courts among them have jurisdiction over Commonwealth law, that is, law made by the Federal parliament of Australia.

High Court of Australia[edit]

The High Court is the highest court in Australia. It was created by section 71 of the Constitution.[8] It has appellate jurisdiction over all other courts. It also has some original jurisdiction, and has the power of constitutional review. The High Court of Australia is the superior court to all federal courts, and is also the final route of appeal from all state superior courts.[9]

Appeals to the High Court are by special leave only, which is rarely granted. Therefore, for most cases, the appellate divisions of the Supreme Courts of each state and territory and the Federal Court are the ultimate appellate courts. The Full Court of the High Court is the ultimate appeal court for Australia.

Appeals from Australian courts to the Privy Council were initially possible, however the Privy Council (Limitation of Appeals) Act 1968 closed off all appeals to the Privy Council in matters involving federal legislation, and the Privy Council (Appeals from the High Court) Act 1975 closed almost all routes of appeal from the High Court. The Australia Act 1986 eliminated appeals from state Supreme Courts to the Privy Council. Appeals from the High Court to the Privy Council are now only theoretically possible in inter se matters with leave of the High Court under section 74 of the Constitution; however, the High Court has indicated it will not grant such leave in the future.

Federal Court of Australia[edit]

The Federal Court primarily hears matters relating to corporations, trade practices, industrial relations, bankruptcy, customs, immigration and other areas of federal law. The court has original jurisdiction in these areas, and also has the power to hear appeals from a number of tribunals and other bodies (and, in cases not involving family law, from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.)

The court is a superior court of limited jurisdiction, but below the High Court of Australia in the hierarchy of federal courts, and was created by the Federal Court of Australia Act in 1976.

Decisions of the High Court are binding on the Federal Court. There is an appeal level of the Federal Court (the "Full Court" of the Federal Court), which consists of several judges, usually three but occasionally five in very significant cases.

Family Court of Australia[edit]

In Melbourne, the Federal Courts are housed in the Commonwealth Law Courts Building on the corner of La Trobe Street and William Street.

The Family Court has jurisdiction over family law matters. It is a superior court of limited jurisdiction and was established in 1975 by the Family Law Act 1975 by the federal parliament. The Commonwealth has power over marriage and divorce under the Constitution. In the 1990s the states referred many of their powers over children of non-married couples to the Commonwealth, which added this power to the Family Court.

Uniquely among the states, Western Australia took up the option of establishing its own Family Court in 1975, and in that state all jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1975 is exercised by the Family Court of Western Australia and not the Family Court of Australia.

The Family Court is a specialist family law court, involving parental disputes, matrimonial property, child support and other family-related laws. The principles of stare decisis (binding law from higher courts) are the same as for the Federal Court. Appeals from the Family Court are heard by a "Full Court" of the Family Court (three to five judges). Appeals from the Full Court lie to the High Court of Australia, though special leave is required. A single judge of the Family Court may hear appeals in family law matters from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. Appeals from the Federal Circuit Court must go to either of these courts (Federal Court or Family Court), dependent on the area of law.

Decisions of the Full Court of the Federal and Family Courts are binding on Federal Circuit Court judges, as are decisions of these courts on appeal from a Federal Circuit Court judge. In other circumstances, decisions of a single Federal or Family Court judge are not strictly binding; however, these will usually be followed by sentencing.

State and territory courts[edit]

Each state and territory has a court hierarchy of its own, with the jurisdictions of each court varying from state to state and territory to territory. However, all states and territories have a Supreme Court, which is a superior court of record and is the highest court within that state or territory. These courts also have appeal divisions, known as the Full Court or Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court (in civil matters), or the Court of Criminal Appeal (in criminal matters.)

Decisions of the High Court are binding on all Australian courts, including state and territory Supreme Courts.

The state and territory courts can sometimes exercise federal jurisdiction (i.e. rule on matters subject to federal legislation.) However, an attempt by the states and the Commonwealth to pass legislation that would cross-vest state judicial powers in the Federal courts was struck down by the High Court in Re Wakim [1999] HCA 27 as being unconstitutional. Notwithstanding this failure, however, both state and federal courts can exercise an "accrued jurisdiction," which enables them to hear all legal issues arising from a single set of facts. This enables all courts to deal with virtually all issues arising from the facts of a case, provided that the particular court has jurisdiction to hear the principal cause of action.

Most of the states have two further levels of courts, which are comparable across the country. The district court (or county court in Victoria) handles most criminal trials for less serious indictable offences, and most civil matters below a threshold (usually around $1 million). The magistrates court (or local court) handles summary matters and smaller civil matters. In jurisdictions without district or county courts, most of those matters are dealt with by the supreme courts. In Tasmania and the two mainland territories, however, there is only a Magistrates Court below the Supreme Court.

In the three external territories (that is, territories not directly forming part of the Commonwealth of Australia but administered by the Commonwealth) there is a supreme court and a magistrates court or court of petty sessions. The supreme courts are staffed by judges of other courts, usually the Federal Court. Appeals from those courts lie to the full Federal Court. As these territories have very small populations, the courts only sit from time to time as needed. The three external territories are Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

The remaining external territories (including Antarctica) do not have permanent courts. In the event of a case arising from these territories, the courts of the ACT have jurisdiction.

Flag of New South Wales.svg
New South Wales
Flag of Victoria (Australia).svg
Flag of Queensland.svg
Flag of South Australia.svg
South Australia
Flag of Western Australia.svg
Western Australia
Flag of Tasmania.svg
Flag of the Northern Territory.svg
Northern Territory
Flag of the Australian Capital Territory.svg
Australian Capital Territory
Flag of Norfolk Island.svg
Norfolk Island

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2012, Courts.
  2. ^ Kirk (2010) 239 CLR 531 [99].
  3. ^ See the Privy Council (Limitation of Appeals) Act 1968 (Cth) and the Privy Council (Appeals from the High Court) Act 1975 (Cth). Although Gibbs CJ, Mason, Wilson and Dawson JJ referred to the 'theoretical possibility' of an appeal to the Privy Council under the Constitution (Cth) s 74 in Attorney-General v Finch (1984) 155 CLR 107, the Court described the grant of a s 74 certificate as 'impossible' in Kirmani v Captain Cook Cruises Pty Ltd (No 2) (1985) 159 CLR 461.
  4. ^ Re McJannet; Ex parte Minister for Employment , Training and Industrial Relations (1983) 184 CLR 620, 653 (Toohey, McHugh and Gummow JJ).
  5. ^ Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth) s 5.
  6. ^ See for example Supreme Court Act 1970 (NSW) s 23; Constitution of Queensland 2001 (Qld) s 58; Supreme Court Act 1935 (SA) s 17; Constitution Act 1975 (Vic) s 85; Supreme Court Act 1935 (WA) s 16.
  7. ^ Although designation as a 'superior court of record' does not necessarily exclude the possibility of judicial review: Kirk (2010) 239 CLR 531 [107].
  8. ^
  9. ^ Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, s.73