Criminal Courts in New South Wales: An Overview of the Jurisdiction, Structure, and Legal Procedures for Criminal Cases
Local Court of New South Wales
The NSW Local Court handles both civil and criminal cases. This Court deals with summary offences, which may attract a fine, good behaviour bond, community service or imprisonment of up to two years in its criminal jurisdiction. These summary and minor indictable offences are usually offences like theft, Centrelink fraud and traffic offences.
The Local court also conducts preliminary examinations of cases that may attract a punishment of more than two years imprisonment and may order the accused to be dealt with in the higher courts.
Children’s Court of New South Wales
The Children’s Court deals with criminal matters involving children or young offenders. It has the power to hear and determine all criminal charges against persons who were children but under 18 when the offence was committed. Appeals from decisions made in the Children’s Court are usually directed to the District Court.
District Court of New South Wales
The NSW District Court is the middle court in the state’s legal jurisdiction and has the jurisdiction to try the most serious offences besides murder or treason. Most of the matters heard within a District Court have been referred from the Local Court. A Judge and jury, or a Judge sitting alone, may conduct trials within the District Court; however, a judge sitting alone is rare and is usually only reserved for complicated cases that may be too technical for a jury.
The NSW Drug Court is a specialist Court that takes referrals from Local or District Courts in some NSW areas. The Drug Court is only available to defendants dependent upon drugs and considered eligible for the purpose of the Court.
The eligibility requirements include such things as a willingness to participate, being likely to be sentenced to full-time imprisonment if convicted in a normal court, being above 18 years of age and being dependent upon the use of prohibited drugs. Likewise, some people may be excluded from availing of the Drug Court if their offence involved violent conduct, if they have been charged with a sexual offence, if they are suffering from a mental disorder or for another reason that is determined by the referring court.
Drug Courts are a fairly modern concept in Australia and have been included based on success with similar courts overseas. They address the underlying drug problem of the defendant and, based on that, allocate the defendant to appropriate treatment options. This is done to reduce recidivism.
Supreme Court of New South Wales
The Supreme Court, which includes the Court of Criminal Appeals and the common law division (criminal matters division), only hears the most serious criminal matters in NSW. As with the District Court, a Judge and jury, or a Judge sitting alone, may conduct trials, most of which have been referred to the Supreme Court from the lower Courts, where there has been a question of fact or a question of law. The Supreme Court rarely conducts jury trials for indictable offences unless they are very serious, such as murder.
The Court of Criminal Appeal hears all appeals from the Supreme Court, District Courts and some Tribunals. The appeal process only looks at the disputed point, or error, of law and not at the entire case.
Three to five Judges, but no jury, will hear the appeal and base their decision on the evidence and the arguments of both the Defence and the Prosecution. The Court may either dismiss the appeal – which means there will be no change, or allow the appeal and make a new decision on the case or order a retrial.
New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal (CCA)
Being the highest court for criminal matters in NSW, the NSW CCA hears appeals from single-judge decisions of the Supreme Court, Land and Environment Court, and the District Court. It has the jurisdiction to review cases based on an error of law, an error of fact, or the severity of the sentence. Decisions from the CCA can be appealed to the High Court of Australia, but only with special leave.