The High Court of Australia interprets and applies the law of Australia, chooses cases of unique federal relevance, including challenges to the constitutional credibility of laws, and hears appeals (by unique leave) from the federal, state and area courts. The High Court has a Chief Justice and 6 various other judges who can preside either separately or together. It is the highest court of appeal on all issues, whether decided in the federal or state territories.
The various other federal courts are the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia. Under the Constitution, state and territory courts may be invested with federal jurisdiction.
The Federal Court’s territory is broad, covering almost all civil issues occurring under Australian federal law and some summary criminal matters. The court also has significant and diverse appellate territory, including over the decisions of single judges of the Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Court (in non-family-law issues) and some decisions of the state and territory courts.
The Family Court is Australia’s superior court in family law. Through its specialist judges and personnel, the court helps to resolve intricate household disputes. It also covers specialised areas such as cases relating to the Hague Convention on International Child Abductions (which reached force in Australia in December 1998) and the worldwide relocation of kids by parents or guardians.
The Federal Magistrates Court was established by the federal parliament in 1999 and conducted its first sittings in July 2000. Its territory includes household law, bankruptcy, unlawful discrimination, customer security and trade practices, personal privacy, migration, copyright and industrial law. Nearly all of its territory is shared with the Family Court or the Federal Court.
Australian state and territory courts have territory in all matters brought under state or territory laws. They also deal with some matters occurring under federal laws, where jurisdiction has been conferred by the federal parliament. State and area courts handle a lot of criminal issues, whether developing under federal, state or territory law.
Each state and territory court system operates independently. All states have supreme courts and some also have courts of criminal appeal, which are the highest appellate courts at the state level. Courts called ‘area’ or ‘county’ courts hear the more significant cases, with a judge commanding the court to interpret and identify the law. For more serious charges it is usual for a jury (usually of 12 people) to identify the shame or innocence of accuseds. Significant offences such as murder, rape and armed robbery are generally tried in a higher court.
Lesser offences are handled in lower courts, called regional or magistrates courts (or courts of petty sessions), where magistrates figure out the shame or innocence of defendants.
In all cases, defendants are considered to be innocent till tested guilty beyond all practical doubt. There is no death penalty in Australia.