Going to Court and Accessing Justice in NSW_ Overview of the Court System and Local Court in New South Wales Court Explained-img

Overview of the Court System in NSW

The New South Wales court system, is a structured and tiered system ensuring that residents have a platform to address their legal concerns. From the Local Court, which hears less complex disputes, to the highest court of the state, known as the Court of Appeal. The following blog post by Empower Wills & Estate Lawyers aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the NSW court system.

History and Background of the NSW Court System

The evolution of NSW courts trace back to Australia’s colonial days. The system was initially simplistic, but as the population grew and the nature of disputes grew, there arose a need for different courts to address different matters.

The Local Court, presided over by a magistrate, had limited jurisdiction. The court handled (and still handles) the vast majority of minor court matters, making it an integral part of the state’s justice system. As the need for addressing more complex disputes grew, the District Court was established to deal with more serious cases and civil claims. Criminal law cases are often complex, and professionals like Ugur Nedim, a sydney criminal lawyer, are able to advise individuals navigating these proceedings.

Sydney, being the centre of the legal profession, saw the establishment of key legal landmarks, such as the Downing Centre, further emphasising the significance of the state in Australia’s broader legal canvas.

With time, the court system in Australia expanded to include federal structures. Courts like the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the High Court of Australia, addressed matters involving federal law and constitutional matters. The High Court is the highest court of each state and territory. Additionally, specialist courts like the Land and Environment Court and Children’s Court were instituted to address specific areas of law.

Another pivotal development was the formation of the Family Court of Australia, given jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1975. Its role is to hear and determine family law matters including applications such as property settlements and residence orders, parenting disputes and other family law and child support matters. In 2021, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court merged to form the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.

Finally, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal, both within the Supreme Court’s purview, play crucial roles in hearing appeals from decisions made in lower courts. Their judgments provide clarity and set precedents for similar cases in the future.

Federal Court and the NSW Judicial System

The Federal Court of Australia and the state-based courts, though distinct in jurisdiction and functions, operate collaboratively within Australia’s legal system. The Federal Court primarily focuses on national and federal matters, handling areas such as bankruptcy, industrial relations, competition law, and matters concerning the Australian Constitution. On the other hand, the state-based courts deal with state-specific issues, adjudicating criminal, civil, and administrative matters specific to the state. Both court systems are vital in the machinery of Australia’s justice system, ensuring that individuals and entities have the appropriate avenues for redress, whether their concerns are stat-based or federal issues.

Hierarchy of Courts in NSW Explained

From the Local Courts, to the District Court, to the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeal which is the highest court in the state’s judicial structure, each level has a distinct role.

Local Court (Magistrates court)

The Local Court has limited jurisdiction and the court hears less complex disputes, and is the court that hears the majority of court proceedings for both civil and criminal proceedings. It typically stands as the gateway for those interacting with the courts for the first time.

  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • Criminal Matters: the court deals with summary offences without a jury and the court also hears committal hearings (preliminary hearings to determine whether matters may go to a higher court).
    • Civil Matters: the court hears all civil cases where claims are less than a specific monetary threshold. These can include motor accident cases, minor property disputes, and small debt recovery claims.
    • Specialist Matters: Some have specialised roles. For instance, the Children’s Court presides on matters involving minors.
  • Key Locations:
    • There are over 150 Local Courts across the state, providing access for all. The Downing Centre in Sydney is one of the most prominent, but Local Courts can be found in many regional centres and towns throughout the state and make going to court accessible.

District Court of New South Wales

The District Court is the intermediate court in the state hierarchy, sitting above the Local Court but below the Supreme Court. It deals with serious criminal and civil matters.

  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • Criminal Matters: The District Court hears indictable criminal matters, which are serious offences such as robbery, sexual assault, and significant fraud. These cases are typically heard by a judge and, if required, a jury.
    • Civil Matters: In the civil jurisdiction, the District Court deals with claims that exceed the Local Court’s monetary limit but are below a designated threshold. This can include significant personal injury claims, property disputes, and contractual disagreements.
  • Key Locations:
    • District Courts are fewer in number compared to Local Courts. While there’s a significant presence in Sydney, including the Downing Centre, District Courts are also located in major regional centres such as Newcastle, Wollongong, and Parramatta, ensuring they are accessible to a larger portion of the state’s population.

Supreme Court of New South Wales

The Supreme Court is the highest first instance court and is a superior court of the state’s judicial system. Often known as the court that also hears significant appeals, it holds both original and appelate jurisdiction. As a court, its prominence can’t be overstated. It interprets the law, sets legal precedents, and addresses the most intricate and complex cases.

  • Divisions within the Supreme Court:
    • Common Law Division: This division handles most of cases that come to the Supreme Court. It covers a broad range of matters, from serious personal injuries and defamation cases to professional negligence and contractual disputes.
    • Equity Division: Specialising in matters related to trusts, wills, probate, and property law, the Equity Division also deals with commercial disputes, corporate law issues, and family provision claims. This division operates under principles of equity, focusing on fairness and conscience.
  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • The Supreme Court hears matters involving both criminal and civil matters that are beyond the jurisdiction of the lower courts. This includes the most serious criminal trials, such as murder and rape, as well as complex civil disputes involving large sums of money or significant property.

NSW Court of Criminal Appeal

Functioning as a court within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal is a criminal appeal court. It reviews decisions from the District Court and Supreme Court, ensuring that legal interpretations and applications align with justice.

  • Types of Cases Reviewed:
    • The Court of Criminal Appeal handles appeals against convictions and sentences imposed by the District Court and the Supreme Court. This could involve cases where the convicted believes there was a significant error in the trial or where the sentencing is considered too harsh or too lenient.

NSW Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is the principal appellate court for civil matters in the state. Like the Court of Criminal Appeal, it falls within the Supreme Court’s structure and is responsible for ensuring that justice is achieved by reviewing decisions made by lower courts.

  • Types of Cases Reviewed:
    • The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Common Law and Equity Divisions of the Supreme Court, as well as from the District Court and certain tribunals. These appeals can be based on various grounds, from errors in legal interpretation to procedural irregularities.

Specialist Courts and Tribunals in NSW

Addressing specific nuances of the legal system, these institutions and tribunals have been established to deal with specific areas of law. Their specialised nature ensures an expertise-driven approach, from the Children’s Court’s focus on minors to the Land and Environment Court’s unique intersection of land, development, and environmental concerns. Sometimes a court and some tribunals might operate as a closed court during sensitive proceedings to protect the identities of children.

Children’s Court

The Children’s Court deals primarily with criminal cases involving minors (those under 18 years of age). The court also handles cases related to the care and protection of children, including those where the state believes a child may be at risk.

  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • Criminal Proceedings: Offences committed by minors, except for serious indictable offences like murder.
    • Care and Protection Matters: Cases where the welfare of a child is in question, including situations of neglect or abuse.

Coroner’s Court

The primary role of the Coroner’s Court is to investigate certain deaths and fires. The court seeks to determine the cause and circumstances of these events, especially where they are sudden, unknown, or the result of an accident or violence.

  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • Investigations into unexpected or unexplained deaths.
    • Inquiries into the source and reasons behind specific fires.

Land and Environment Court

The Land and Environment Court holds a unique position in the state’s judicial system, as it merges both judicial and merit-based considerations. It deals with environmental, development, and land issues.

  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • Environmental Matters: Cases related to pollution, illegal land clearing, or breaches of environmental law.
    • Land Matters: Disputes concerning land valuation, land rights, and land usage.
    • Development Matters: Cases involving building approvals, zoning disputes, and other related developmental concerns.

Industrial Relations Commission

The Industrial Relations Commission is tasked with regulating and upholding industrial laws in the state. It plays a crucial role in ensuring fair employment practices, resolving industrial disputes, and setting wages and employment conditions.

  • Types of Cases Heard:
    • Dispute Resolutions: Arbitrating and mediating disputes between employers and employees or between different unions.
    • Employment Matters: Hearing cases related to unfair dismissals, employment conditions, and discrimination in the workplace.
    • Wage Reviews: Setting and reviewing wages, working conditions, and other related industrial matters.

Judicial Officers Explained


Magistrates preside over Local Courts. Their responsibilities encompass both civil and criminal matters, though the complexity and severity of cases they manage are generally lower than those dealt with in higher courts.

  • Duties and Responsibilities:
    • Criminal Proceedings: Determining summary offences, which are those not requiring a jury trial. This includes determining guilt or innocence and, if necessary, deciding on appropriate sentences.
    • Committal Hearings: Preliminary hearings to ascertain if there’s enough evidence for a case to be committed to a higher court.
    • Civil Matters: Dealing with civil disputes up to a certain monetary value, often involving issues like minor debts or personal injury claims.
    • Specialised Cases: Some magistrates specialise in particular types of law, such as family law or children’s matters.
  • Appointment and Training:
    • Magistrates are typically appointed by the state government on the recommendation of the Attorney-General. They come with significant legal experience, often having served as solicitors or barristers prior to their appointment.


Judges preside over higher courts, such as the District and Supreme Courts, tasked with interpreting and applying the law in both criminal and civil cases. Supreme Court judges handle serious criminal matters like murder and fraud and substantial civil disputes, and play an essential role in setting legal precedents and interpreting legislation. Appointed based on their profound legal expertise and experience by the state’s Governor, their decisions not only directly impact individuals but also shape the broader legal landscape, ensuring justice is upheld in the region. Their tenure, often until the statutory retirement age, is designed to guarantee their independence, allowing them to adjudicate without external pressures.

Legal Representation in NSW Courts – Privately funded or Legal Aid?

In the diverse legal landscape of NSW, both solicitors and barristers play pivotal roles. While solicitors typically act as the primary point of contact for clients, offering legal advice, preparing documents, and handling general legal matters, barristers are often engaged by solicitors to represent clients in court, providing specialised legal opinions and advocating on their behalf. The choice between public vs. private representation can be crucial. Private representation involves hiring legal professionals directly, usually at one’s own expense, ensuring tailored and dedicated legal service. In contrast, public representation, primarily offered through Legal Aid in NSW, is crucial for those who can’t afford private legal services. Legal aid ensures that every individual, regardless of their financial situation, has access to justice and receives fair representation in the courts. The importance of legal aid cannot be understated; it underpins the principle that justice should be accessible to all, upholding the integrity of the NSW court system.

Procedure and Protocols of NSW Courts

Understanding the judicial process necessitates an understanding of the court’s practice and procedures that guide cases from initiation to resolution.

  • The Path of a Typical Case Through the System:
    • Initiation: A case begins with the filing of originating documents. In criminal proceedings, this might be the filing of charges in the form of court attendance notices by the police or prosecutors. In civil cases, it’s typically initiated by an individual or entity claiming harm or a breach of rights.
    • Preliminary Hearings: Especially in criminal proceedings, preliminary hearings may determine whether there’s enough evidence for the case to proceed. This phase often occurs in lower courts.
    • Trial: If no settlement is reached in civil matters, or if criminal proceedings aren’t dismissed or resolved by way of guilty plea, the case moves to hearing. Evidence is presented, witnesses are called and examined, and arguments are made. Depending on the nature and gravity of the case, this can occur in a Local Court, District Court, or Supreme Court.
    • Judgment/Verdict: After considering the evidence and arguments, a magistrate or judge delivers a decision. In some cases, a jury may be involved to determine guilt in criminal proceedings or liability in civil ones.
  • The Importance of the Rule of Law and Impartiality: At the heart of the NSW judicial system is the rule of law, a principle asserting that every individual, irrespective of status, is subject to the law. This foundational concept ensures fairness and justice, prohibiting arbitrary actions and guaranteeing rights and freedoms. Closely linked is the principle of impartiality, demanding that judicial officers approach every case without prejudice or bias. This ensures every individual receives a fair hearing, reinforcing public confidence in the justice system.
  • How Decisions Can Be Appealed: Not every judicial decision concludes the legal journey. If a party believes a legal error was made, they have the right to appeal the decision. Appeals can be based on points of law, questions of fact, or both, or be an appeal of government decisions. Typically, decisions from Local Courts might be appealed to the District Court or the Supreme Court. Decisions from the Supreme Court can be appealed to the Court of Appeal or Court of Criminal Appeal. The highest appellate court in the country is the High Court of Australia, but permission (known as ‘special leave’) is needed to appeal there.

Navigating through the judicial heirarchy requires an understanding of these procedures and protocols, as they serve as the blueprint for the delivery of justice in the state.


The state’s court system is a cornerstone of justice, designed to uphold the rule of law and ensure the rights of all individuals are protected. Its structured procedures and protocols, from initial filings to appeals, underscore its commitment to fair and equitable justice. Navigating this intricate system, however, demands expertise. For those seeking guidance or embroiled in legal matters, it’s essential to tap into seasoned resources and legal professionals like Empower Wills & Estate Lawyers to ensure a comprehensive understanding and effective representation.

About The Author

Oliver Morrisey
Oliver Morrisey

Oliver Morrisey LL.M lives and breathes succession law.

Oliver is the Founder and Director of Empower Wills and Estate Lawyers, a law practice specialising in will and estate disputes. Oliver prides himself on the business providing the following customer-centric promises:

1. developing a professional client relationship built on trust.
2. achieving the best outcome for the client.
3. delivering quality services to the client efficiently and effectively.

Located in Edgecliff in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, Oliver travels regularly to visit clients who choose him for his extensive knowledge and experience.

Oliver invites partnerships or referral enquiries.

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