The court system can be very confusing for people who are unfamiliar with it. This article spells out the court hierarchy and the kinds of matters which are dealt with by particular courts in Australia.
The key split between the Australian courts occurs at the federal and state level. In general, state and federal courts run along different streams and both meet at the top in the High Court of Australia. Although State courts may be able to exercise federal jurisdiction, the same is not true in reverse.
High Court of Australia (HCA)
The HCA is the highest court in Australia and the final court of appeal. Consequently, it can receive civil and criminal appeals from the Full Court of the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court and the Full Court of the Family Court. The HCA also hears disputes on the constitutional validity of laws. 7 judges sit on the HCA which is located in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
Federal Court of Australia (FCA)
The FCA deals with virtually all civil matters arising under federal law and some criminal matters. For example, the court has jurisdiction over bankruptcy, corporations, industrial relations, native title, taxation and trade practices matters. The FCA also hears applications for judicial review of administrative decisions made under Commonwealth laws and appeals on questions of law from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The FCA hears appeals from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. The appeal limb of the FCA is called the Full Court of the Federal Court and consists of 3 or more judges.
Family Court of Australia
This federal court deals uniquely with family law matters. It also hears appeals of less complex family law decisions made in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. The Family Court is located in all Australian states and territories except for the Northern Territory. Appeals from the Family Court are heard by the Full Court of the Family Court (3 judges).
Federal Circuit Court of Australia (FCC)
The FCC is a lower-level federal court which hears less complex matters that would generally otherwise be dealt with by the FCA or Family Court. For example, family law, administrative law, bankruptcy, industrial law, privacy, migration and trade practices matters.
The Supreme Court of a state or territory is the highest state court and deals with civil and criminal matters. A supreme court has both a trial division and an appeal division. The appeal division is referred to as the Court of Appeal for civil cases and Court of Criminal Appeal for criminal cases. Appeal courts are made up of 3 or 5 judges. The NSW Supreme Court deals with civil claims over $750,000 and hears serious criminal matters. Appeals from the appeal division of the Supreme Court are made to the HCA.
District Court (called the County Court in Victoria)
The District Court is the intermediate state court dealing with civil and criminal matters. The NSW District Court deals with all criminal matters except for murder, treason and piracy and civil matters up to claims of $750,000 (except for motor accident cases).
Magistrates Court (AKA Local Court)
The Magistrates/Local Court also has civil and criminal jurisdiction. The NSW Local Court deals with civil claims up to $100,000 and summary criminal offences. Appeals from the Magistrates Court are heard in the District Court.
States may also have specialist courts. For example, in NSW, there is a specialist Land and Environment Court, Children’s Court, Coroner’s Court and Drug Court.
The type of case you are dealing with will generally determine in which court it is heard. The Australian court system is split between federal and state courts (although state courts may exercise federal jurisdiction and there can be a crossover). The highest court in Australia is the HCA and it hears appeals from the Full Court of the Federal Court, the Full Court of the Family Court and the Courts of Appeal of Supreme Courts.