Courts in the ACT
The ACT’s court system is unique because, unlike most other Australian jurisdictions, it does not have a distinct intermediary court, such as a District or County Court.
The system is a product of the Territory’s unique place in the Federation. Unlike the states, there are only two levels of government in Canberra: Commonwealth and Territory, with the municipal or shire council level absent. Indeed, the Commonwealth was the only government responsible for the Territory right up until the granting of self-government in 1989.
ACT Magistrates Court
This is the lowest court in the hierarchy and it is where all criminal prosecutions begin. Less serious matters, known as “summary only” matters, and carrying a maximum penalty of not more than two years’ imprisonment, must be dealt with in the Magistrates Court.
Where the maximum penalty is longer than two years but not more than five years, the prosecution can elect to have it dealt with summarily in the Magistrates Court. If such an election is made, the court cannot impose a penalty beyond a fine of $5000 and/or two years’ imprisonment.
The ACT Supreme Court
The ACT Supreme Court has the role of both an intermediary court (such as a state District Court) and a state Supreme Court. This is where the most serious matters will be decided.
If an offence carries a maximum penalty of more than 10 years, it must be dealt with in the Supreme Court but there are some exceptions to this rule.
The first of those exceptions is if the charged offence relates to money or property. If so, then the maximum penalty for the particular offence must be more than 14 years before it is required to be finalised in the Supreme Court.
The other exceptions are for certain offences of burglary and robbery which carry 20 and 25 years as maximum penalties, depending on the particular version of the offence that has been charged.
Where an offence carries a maximum penalty of more than five years but not more than 10 years, or where it is one of the exceptions mentioned above, the defendant can determine to keep the matter in the Magistrates Court. This is called “consenting to the jurisdiction” of the lower court. In relation to burglary and robbery offences, the consent of the prosecution is also required, and if the matter involves money or property, the amount of money or value of property must not exceed $30,000. If it does, the matter will be required to be finalised in the Supreme Court. When such cases are dealt with in the Magistrates Court, the maximum penalties are a fine of $15,000 and/or five years’ imprisonment.
The Supreme Court conducts jury trials and determines appeals against sentences and convictions imposed in the Magistrates Court.
ACT Court of Appeal
The ACT Court of Appeal was established in 2001 to exercise full general appellate jurisdiction, including the hearing of appeals by three judges from judgments of single judges of the Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal consists of the Territory’s four resident judges and 18 additional judges of the Supreme Court, whose primary commission is as a judge of the Federal Court, and who are called on to sit in the ACT only from time to time.
High Court of Australia
The High Court of Australia is not strictly an ACT Court, despite being physically located in the ACT. The High Court is the highest court in Australia and hears appeals from each of the states and territories. It is possible that an ACT criminal matter will proceed to the High Court, but such instances are exceedingly rare.
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