What are the different courts?


Courts in Australia deal with matters from minor traffic infringements to criminal trials.

The court system operates in a hierarchy. Lower courts hear smaller matters and higher courts hear bigger matters. There are three main courts in NSW, as well as a number of tribunals and federal courts. Here’s a quick guide to the main differences you should know.

NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal

This tribunal, also known as NCAT, is the first port of call for civil matters. NCAT can make decisions about a wide range of everyday issues, such as tenancy and strata issues, business disputes, guardianship applications, government decisions, discrimination, professional discipline, and more. It’s typically much faster and cheaper than going to court.

Local Court of NSW

The Local Court hears more than 90 per cent of civil cases and deals with claims up to $100,000 in value. It also hears most minor criminal matters (also referred to as “summary offences”), such as traffic offences, property offences, drug offences, and assault. Local Court matters are decided by a magistrate and decisions can be appealed to the District Court.

District Court of NSW

The District Court hears more serious cases, including civil claims ranging from $100,000 to $750,000 in value. It also hears most serious criminal matters (known as “indictable offences”) – including those decided by a jury. The District Court also hears all motor accident cases. Matters are decided by a judge and decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court of NSW

The Supreme Court is the highest court in NSW. It hears all civil claims over $750,000 in value as well as the most serious criminal matters, such as murder, piracy, and treason. Matters are decided by a judge and decisions can be appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal is made up of a panel of Supreme Court judges and matters are decided by the majority.

Federal Circuit and Family Court

The Federal Circuit Court of Australia and Family Court of Australia merged in 2021. This is a specialist court that hears all family law and child support cases across the country. This court also hears matters that arise under federal law, which can include native title, maritime law, workplace relations, corporate law, bankruptcy, consumer issues, and some criminal cases. Divorce and custody disputes are most often heard in the Family Court of Australia but matters over property settlements can be heard in the local court, too.