Courts and trib​​unals

The Australian legal system is made up of different courts and tribunals, both at a state and federal level. Which court or tribunal you go to will depend on what your case is about. It is important that you start your case in the correct court or tribunal.

Alert iconIf you are unsure where to file your claim, get legal advice.

    ​Sta​​te c​o​​u​​​rts

    There are three main courts in NSW. The Local Court, District Court and Supreme Court.

    Local C​o​​​​urt

    The Local Court is the lowest court in the court hierarchy. There are a number of local courts throughout NSW. They hear:

    •  civil cases
    •  criminal law cases
    • applications for apprehended violence orders (AVOs)
    • applications relating to driver's licences
    • some family law cases.

    The Local Court's civil jurisdiction is made up of the Small Claims Division and the General Division. The Small Claims Division can hear cases up to $10 000. The General Division can hear cases up to $100 000, or if the parties agree up to $120 000. Any claim more than this amount will be heard in the District Court.

    Cases in the Local Court are heard by Registrars, Assessors and Magistrates.

    District C​o​​urt

    The District Court is the intermediate court in the court hierarchy. There are two District Courts, Sydney CBD and Parramatta, but the District Court also sits and has registries at a number of places outside of Sydney.

    The District Court hears:

    • civil claims between $100 000 and $750 000, or more if the parties agree
    •  more serious criminal matters except murder, treason and piracy
    • appeals from the Local Court.

    Cases in the District Court are heard by a Judge. Criminal cases are heard by a judge and a jury unless the accused requests a Judge alone trial.

    Supreme ​​​C​​​ourt

    The Supreme Court is the highest court in NSW.The Supreme Court hears:

    •  the most serious criminal matters, such as murder
    • civil claims more than $750 000
    • appeals from the District Court.

    The appeal courts are the Court of Appeal and Court of Criminal Appeal.

    Trial work is divided between the Common Law Division and the Equity Division.

    Cases in the Supreme Court are heard by a Judge. Criminal cases are heard by a Judge and a jury unless the accused requests a Judge alone trial.  

    For more information about NSW Courts and Tribunals, go to the Courts and Tribunal Services website​.

    Federal courts

    Federal courts in NSW hear matters relating to federal law when the incident arises in NSW or the parties live in NSW.

    Federal Circuit Court of Australia

    The Federal Circuit Court hears a range of cases including:

    • family law and child support
    • administrative law
    • admiralty law
    • bankruptcy
    • copyright
    • human rights
    • industrial law (employment law)
    • migration
    • privacy
    • trade practices.

    For more information, go to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia website.

    Federal Court of Australia

    The Federal Court sits in all capital cities and elsewhere in Australia from time to time.

    The Federal Court hears a range of cases including:

    • employment
    • human rights
    • migration
    • bankruptcy
    • appeals from the Supreme Court of NSW in federal matters
    • appeals from the Supreme Court of the ACT and the Supreme Court of Norfolk Island
    • appeals from decisions of single judges of the court and from the Federal Circuit Court in non-family law matters.

    For more information, go to the Federal Court of Australia website.

    Family Court of Australia

    The Family Court has 19 registries in all Australian states and territories except Western Australia, which has its own family court.

    The Family Court hears complex legal family disputes.

    For more information, go to the Family Court of Australia website.

    High Court of Australia

    The High Court is the highest court in Australia. It is located in Canberra. There are offices of the High Court Registry in Sydney and Melbourne, staffed by officers of the High Court. In Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Perth, registry functions are performed on behalf of the High Court by officers of the Federal Court of Australia, and in Hobart they are performed by officers of the Supreme Court of Tasmania.

    The High Court hears:

    • a range of cases, including cases about arbitration, contract, company law, copyright, courts-martial, criminal law and procedure, tax law, insurance, personal injury, property law, family law and trade practices
    • cases which involve interpretation of the Constitution, or where the Court may be invited to make a decision differently to how it did before, or where the Court considers the principle of law involved to be one of major public importance
    • appeals from the Supreme Court of the states and territories
    • appeals from the federal courts.

    Cases may be decided by a full bench (all seven Justices), a full court (not less than two Justices) or a single Justice.

    There is no automatic right to have an appeal heard by the High Court and parties who wish to appeal must persuade the Court in a preliminary hearing that there are special reasons why the appeal should be heard. Decisions of the High Court on appeals are final. There are no further appeals once a matter has been decided by the High Court, and the decision is binding on all other courts throughout Australia.

    For more information, go to the High Court of Australia website.


    Tribunals or commissions also have the power to make decisions which are binding. Tribunals are less formal than courts and often provide a quicker and cheaper way of solving a legal dispute.

    NSW has a number of specialist tribunals that hear specific types of cases, for example, the Migration Review Tribunal.

    However, most tribunals in NSW have now been combined into one tribunal, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT). NCAT has 4 Divisions:

    NCAT hears a range of matters including:​

    •  fencing matters
    •  consumer claims
    •  guardianship issues
    •  strata and tenancy disputes
    •  home building disputes.

    For a full list of matters NCAT can deal with, go to the NCAT website.