Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the different courts in Australia and how do they work in criminal matters?
Local and Magistrates' Courts
Local Court and Magistrates’ Courts hear less serious matters and are heard by a Magistrate.
The role of the Local or Magistrates Court in criminal matters varies in each State and Territory. For example, in NSW, 90 per cent of criminal matters will be dealt with by the Local Court. In the ACT, the Magistrates Court hears criminal matters but only to decide whether or not the accused should be sent to a high court for a trial.
District and County Court
District and County Courts are the next level up from the Local or Magistrates Court. Matters in these courts are heard by a Judge.
District and County Courts will also conduct appeals from the Local and Magistrates Court. These courts also conduct criminal trials with juries for indictable offences.
The Supreme Court in each jurisdiction is the highest court in that State or Territory.
Most Supreme Courts will conduct jury trials for indictable offences but this is generally only for very serious offences, such as murder.
Supreme Courts will also hear appeals from lower courts. These appeals may be questions of fact (where the appellant alleges that the Magistrate or Judge made an error relating to the facts of the case) or questions of law (where the appellant contends that the Magistrate or Judge has incorrectly applied the law).
There are special appeal divisions of the Supreme Court. For example, in Victoria and Queensland, the division that hears appeals is called the Court of Appeal. In NSW there is the specialist division called the Criminal Court of Appeal. The Criminal Court of Appeal hears appeals based on questions of law from the NSW Local and District courts.
The Federal Court will hear criminal matters that are created by federal legislation. That is, legislation that applies to all States and Territories.
The High Court is the highest court in Australia. Any appeal that goes to the High Court will be on a question of law only and special permission is required.