The Magistrates Court is a state wide court operating from local registries.
The Court is divided into:
- Civil (Minor Claims) Division
- Civil (General Claims) Division
- Civil (Consumer and Business Claims) Division
- Criminal Division
- Petty Sessions Division
Most cases in the Magistrates Court are decided by a Magistrate. Special justices makes decisions in the Petty Sessions Division and in other limited cases. Magistrates are legally qualified, but special justices usually have no formal legal training.
[See Magistrates Court Act 1991 (SA) ss 7 and 7A].
The Magistrates Court in its civil jurisdiction is a court of law and equity which means there is a wide range of remedies that the Court can order. In addition to making orders for payment of money, the Court has the power to order people to do certain things, for example, to hand over property.
The Civil (Minor Claims) Division of the Magistrates Court has power to hear:
- monetary claims for $12 000 or less (as of 1 August 2016)
- neighbourhood disputes
- minor statutory proceedings
[See Magistrates Court Act 1991 (SA) s 3].
This division of the Magistrates Court has simplified procedures to allow people to represent themselves. Usually no lawyers are permitted to represent parties. Disputes between parties are dealt with according to equity, good conscience and the substantial merits of the case without regard to technicalities and legal forms.
See Magistrates Court Act 1991 s 38 and Magistrates Court (Civil) Rules 2013 r 13(4).
The Civil (General Claims) Division of the Magistrates Court has power to hear matters up to $100 000.
[See Magistrates Court Act 1991 (SA) s 8].
The Magistrates Court in its criminal jurisdiction deals with less serious criminal cases such as theft (summary and minor indictable offences). There are no juries.
The Magistrates Court does not hear more serious criminal cases such as murder, manslaughter or conspiracy to pervert the course of justice (indictable offences). However, the Magistrate will conduct preliminary examinations (committal hearings) in relation to indictable offences to decide whether or not there is enough evidence to send the accused to trial in a higher court.
The Magistrates Court may determine a sentence following a guilty plea in a major indictable matter (but not murder or treason). Appeals normally go to the Supreme Court, but in these matters, an appeal lies to the full court of the Supreme Court [Magistrates Court Act 1991 s42(2)(ab)].
[See Magistrates Court Act 1991 (SA) s 9 and Summary Procedure Act 1921 (SA) s 5].
The Magistrates Court does not have the power to impose:
- a sentence of imprisonment that exceeds 5 years if the penalty is for 1 offence
- a sentence of imprisonment that exceeds 10 years if the penalty is for more than 1 offence
- a fine in a matter under the Occupational Health, Safety and Welfare Act 1986 being heard by an industrial magistrate that exceeds $300 000
- a fine in any other case that exceeds $150 000.
[See Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act 1988 (SA) s 19(3)].
The District Court is a state wide court and travels to country areas. It has the following four divisions:
- Civil Division
- Criminal Division
- Criminal Injuries Division
- Administrative and Disciplinary Division
[See District Court Act 1991 (SA) s 7].
The Criminal Division, made up of a judge and jury, hears more serious criminal cases, except treason and murder, where the Magistrates Court has referred the accused for a penalty to be given (if pleading guilty) or for a trial (if pleading not guilty). The Civil Division, consisting of one judge alone, has almost the same powers as the Supreme Court.The Criminal Injuries Division hears claims under the Victims of Crime Act 2001 and the Administrative and Disciplinary Division hears claims under other legislation.
[See District Court Act 1991 (SA) ss 8 and 9].
To encourage plaintiffs to make their claim in the correct court, there is a rule that a plaintiff may not recover any legal costs unless more than the following minimum amounts are awarded (unless there are special reasons):
- for injury claims arising from a motor vehicle accident, $30 000
- in defamation cases, $7 500
- any other claim $15 000
[See District Court Act 1991 (SA) s 42(2) and District Court Civil Rules 2006 (SA) r 263(2)].
The Supreme Court is the highest State court. It decides both civil and criminal matters and its decisions are binding on the lower courts. It has an original jurisdiction that is exclusive to this Court (i.e. not shared with lower courts). This includes probate (wills), murder, and, although rare, treason and admiralty cases. It also has a Land and Valuation Division.
The Court also has an appellate jurisdiction, hearing appeals from lower courts and specialist tribunals and from single judges of the Supreme Court. Appeals from lower courts are usually heard by one judge. Appeals from decisions of a single Supreme Court judge are heard by a Full Bench of (usually) three Supreme Court Judges sitting together. In civil cases this is called the Full Court and in criminal cases it is called the Court of Criminal Appeal. Appeals from the Supreme Court can be made to the High Court of Australia with the High Court's permission (called 'special leave').
In the Supreme Court the minimum amounts that must be awarded for a plaintiff to be enitlted to an order for costs (unless there are special reasons) are:
- for injury claims arising from a motor vehicle accident, $150 000
- in defamation cases, $25 000
- any other claim $75 000
Apart from the main courts mentioned above there are a number of specialist courts. These include:
- the Youth Court [see Youth Court Act 1993 (SA) s 4];
- the Environment, Resources and Development Court [see Environment, Resources and Development Court Act 1993 (SA)];
- the Coroners Court [Coroners Act 2003 (SA) s 10];
- the Licencing Court [see Liquor Licensing Act 1997 (SA) s 12];
- the Industrial Relations Court [see Fair Work Act 1994 (SA) s 8];
- the Court of Disputed Returns [see Electoral Act 1985 (SA) s103]; and
- the Warden's Court [see Mining Act 1971 (SA) s 64].
The content of the Law Handbook is made available as a public service for information purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for legal advice. See Disclaimer for details. For free and confidential legal advice in South Australia call 1300 366 424.