Courts and tribunals

Courts and tribunals apply the law in Victoria and throughout Australia.

Court Services Victoria

Court Services Victoria is an independent statutory body established in 2014. It provides the administrative services and infrastructure necessary for the Victorian courts and Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to operate independently of government departments and agencies.

Visiting courts

You can watch most court and tribunal hearings in Australia. A list of cases sitting each day is available on individual court and tribunal websites.

Victorian courts and tribunals

Supreme Court of Victoria

The Supreme Court of Victoria is the highest court in Victoria. It is headed by the Chief Justice of Victoria and was established in 1852. The Chief Justice is the most senior judicial officer in the state. The only court that is superior to the Supreme Court is the High Court of Australia.

The Supreme Court deals with serious criminal cases and complex civil cases.

It is located in central Melbourne and travels on circuit throughout Victoria during the year — check the Supreme Court website for details.

The Supreme Court is divided into two divisions — the Court of Appeal and the Trial Division.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is a division of the Supreme Court of Victoria. It is headed by the President of the Court of Appeal and hears appeals from the Trial Division of the Supreme Court and other Victorian courts and tribunals.

The Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal and a number of appeal justices make up the Court of Appeal. Usually three judges will hear an appeal, although five may sit if the matter is very significant.

Trial Division

The Chief Justice and Supreme Court justices make up the Trial Division of the Supreme Court, which hears major criminal matters, including murder, and civil cases involving large sums of money or complex legal matters.

What is an appeal?

An appeal is when one of the parties to a case disagrees with the decision given by the court and seeks a review from a superior court.

County Court of Victoria

The County Court of Victoria is headed by the Chief Judge and sits in the middle of the court hierarchy — above the Magistrates’ Court and below the Supreme Court.

The County Court was established in 1958. Prior to this, regional courts performed the role of the County Court.

The County Court hears civil, criminal and criminal appeal matters. The County Court hears more serious criminal cases than the Magistrates’ Court, including matters involving drugs, robbery, dangerous driving and sex offences. Criminal and civil cases in the County Court may be heard before a judge and jury or a judge alone.

The County Court is located in central Melbourne. It also presently sits at 12 locations across Victoria. Details of when the court is sitting outside Melbourne can be found on the County Court website.

Magistrates’ Court of Victoria

The Magistrates’ Court is headed by the Chief Magistrate. The Magistrates’ Court handles criminal, civil and family law matters.

The Magistrates’ Court has been operating since around 1838. Magistrates’ Courts sit in 51 locations, and they hear most of the cases that reach court in Victoria.

There are no juries in the Magistrates’ Court — each case is determined by a single judicial officer.

Criminal matters that are heard in the Magistrates’ Court include all summary offences, which are less serious offences than those heard by the County and Supreme Courts. The Magistrates’ Court also hears some more serious offences, but only where the accused has elected not to have their case heard before a jury.

This court also conducts hearings called committal hearings, where a magistrate decides if there is enough evidence for a serious case to proceed to the County or Supreme Court.

Bail hearings are also conducted in the Magistrates’ Court. This is where a magistrate decides if an accused person on remand should be granted bail and what conditions should be imposed.

The Magistrates’ Court can determine most civil disputes in which the disputed amount is $100,000 or less. Most disputes involving larger amounts are heard in the County or Supreme Courts, but in some circumstances the Magistrates’ Court can hear cases involving an unlimited amount.

Within the Magistrates’ Court there are a number of separate jurisdictions and lists which deal with matters on specific topics. The court also operates the Drug Court, Koori Court and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre.

Drug Court

The Drug Court is a division of the Magistrates’ Court. It handles criminal cases where the offender has a drug or alcohol problem.

The Drug Court has the power to sentence offenders to a Drug Treatment Order, requiring them to undertake a drug treatment program rather than spend time in jail. But a person could still have to go to jail if they breach the Drug Treatment Order.

Assessment and Referral Court List

The Assessment and Referral Court List, located at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, is a special list for criminal cases in the Magistrates’ Court where the person accused of the crime has a mental illness or cognitive impairment.

The Assessment and Referral Court List aims to address the underlying factors that cause mentally ill people to commit crime and make sure that they have access to the support services they need. It was set up to help find alternatives to prison sentences for mentally ill people.

The court process is more informal than in the ordinary Magistrates’ Court.

Koori Court

The Koori Court is a division of the Magistrates’ Court for Aboriginal (Koori) Victorians who have been charged with criminal offences.

Koori Courts have been developed to reflect cultural issues and operate in a more informal way than the Magistrates’ Court. All the participants sit around a table, including the magistrate, prosecutor, Aboriginal elders, the accused person and members of their family. The matter is then discussed without technical legal language, and the magistrate decides on a sentence that is appropriate for the offender and their community.

Family Violence Court Division

Specialist Family Violence Courts are located in the Magistrates’ Courts at Shepparton, Ballarat and Heidelberg and will be expanding to Moorabbin and Frankston in 2020. The Division provides specialist services that aim to:

  • provide easy access to the court
  • promote the safety of people affected by violence
  • increase accountability of people who have used violence against family members, and encourage them to change their behaviour
  • increase the protection of children exposed to family violence.

Family Violence Court Division features:

  • specially-trained applicant and respondent support workers who can provide support to parties when their matters are before the Court
  • magistrates specifically trained to hear family violence matters
  • police prosecutors, outreach workers and lawyers with special training in and knowledge of family violence matters
  • the capacity to hear other matters at the same time as Intervention Order cases. These include bail applications and pleas in criminal cases, family law parenting order matters, and Victims of Crime applications related to family violence
  • magistrates are empowered to order male respondents to attend Men’s Behaviour Change Programs to change their violent and abusive behaviour.
Children’s Court of Victoria

The Children’s Court handles cases involving children and young people up to the age of 18, and in some cases up to 19 years.

It has two divisions: the Criminal Division and the Family Division. The Criminal Division deals with children and young people accused of committing crime. The Family Division deals with matters relating to the care and protection of children and young people at risk, as well as applications for intervention orders.

Children’s Koori Court (Criminal Division)

The Children’s Koori Court hears matters relating to criminal offending by Koori children and young people, other than sexual offences. Sentences in Koori Court are the same as in mainstream criminal cases but the court process is different. An Elder or Respected Person sits beside the judge or magistrate to give cultural advice about the young person’s situation. They also speak to the young person. The judge or magistrate makes the sentencing decision, involving the Koori community to reduce offending behaviour and the number of young Koori people sentenced to detention.

Koori Family Hearing Day (Family Division)

The Children’s Court in Broadmeadows became the first Australian court to establish a Koori Family Hearing Day, known as Marram-Ngala Ganbu meaning ‘We are One’ in Woiwurrung language. It aims to improve outcomes for Koori children in child protection proceedings, providing a culturally-appropriate process to assist in decision making. It also aims to ensure that recognition is given to an Aboriginal child’s right to be raised in his/her own culture and the importance and value of family, kinship networks, culture and community in raising Aboriginal children.

Family Drug Treatment Court (Family Division)

The Family Drug Treatment Court (FDTC) is a program within the Family Division of the Children’s Court of Victoria that commenced at the Broadmeadows Children’s Court and has now been expanded to the Shepparton Children’s Court.

The FDTC program is designed to assist families whose children have been placed in out of home care due to parental substance misuse. The program aims to support parents to stop using drugs and alcohol, and address safety concerns in order to achieve family reunification in a way that is safe and sustainable for children.

Participants are supported by a dedicated team of professionals including a dedicated FDTC Magistrate, a child protection Practice Leader, a Clinical Practice Leader and Clinical Case Managers.

The Children’s Court is separate from the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court which deal with family law matters.

Coroners Court of Victoria

The Coroners Court investigates the cause and circumstances of some deaths and fires. Unlike other courts, it is investigative rather than adversarial. A coroner cannot find guilt or innocence, or criminal liability. Their primary purpose is to make recommendations to help prevent similar deaths or fires in the future.

Not every death in Victoria is investigated by a coroner. Coroners can only investigate deaths that are unexpected, unnatural, violent or which resulted from accident or injury. This can include deaths that occur during or following a medical procedure, or where a doctor is unsure of the cause of death.

A coroner must investigate the death of anyone who has died while in state custody. Coroners must also investigate reviewable deaths. Reviewable deaths occur when two or more children of the same parents have died.

Formerly the State Coroner’s Office, the jurisdiction became a court in its own right with the commencement of the Coroners Act 2008 in November 2009.

Neighbourhood Justice Centre

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre is a division of the Magistrates’ Court that brings together integrated support services and community programs. It aims to tackle the underlying causes of criminal behaviour and disadvantage, reducing crime and improving the wellbeing of the community.

The centre’s magistrate hears Magistrates’ Court and Children’s Court (criminal division) matters. VCAT and the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal also sit at the centre.

Clients receive a broad range of services including alcohol and other drug assessment and support, mental health assistance, financial counselling, employment assistance, and specialist family violence assistance.

Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) makes decisions about a wide range of disputes in Victoria.

People mostly come to VCAT to resolve renting, consumer and planning disputes, and to sort out guardianship and administration arrangements for family and friends unable to make reasoned decisions due to disability. VCAT’s role is to make a fair decision according to the law.

The tribunal determines cases about residential and retail tenancies, equal opportunity, domestic building, guardianship, legal practice, owners’ corporations, goods and services, health and information privacy, the sale and ownership of property and a range of other matters.

VCAT also deals with applications from people seeking review of government and other decisions that affect them. These include decisions relating to the development and use of land, Transport Accident Commission findings, state taxation, legal services, WorkSafe assessments; and business licences, professional registrations and disciplinary proceedings across a range of professions and industries.

The tribunal has nine separate lists (groups of similar cases) across five divisions: administrative, civil, residential tenancies, planning and environment, and human rights. It offers alternative dispute resolution, such as mediations and compulsory conferences, to help resolve disputes.

VCAT was established in 1998.

VCAT Lists

  • Building and Property
  • Civil Claims
  • Guardianship
  • Human Rights
  • Legal Practice
  • Owners Corporations
  • Planning and Environment
  • Residential Tenancies
  • Review and Regulation
Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal

Established in 1996, the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal, headed by the Chief Magistrate of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, gives financial assistance to Victorians who have been injured by an act of violent crime. This tribunal sits at most Magistrates’ Courts across Victoria.

Victims of crime and their families can make an application to this tribunal. The tribunal decides if they are entitled to financial assistance and, if so, how much. The act of violence must have occurred in Victoria, and it must have resulted in injury or death to at least one person. The word injury includes physical harm, mental illness and pregnancy. It does not include damage to property or theft.

About juries

Juries are an important part of Victoria’s civil and criminal law system. Juries comprise citizens randomly chosen from the electoral register and enable non-legal members of our community to participate in the administration of justice.

Juries are required for serious criminal trials and some civil trials in the County and Supreme Courts. Twelve jury members sit in a criminal trial. The jury must decide if the accused person is guilty as charged. For civil trials (private disputes between parties) there are six jury members. In these cases, the jury must decide which party is at fault.

Most trials take seven to ten days, but they can take longer. Jurors are paid a small amount of money by the court and their employer is required to pay them the amount they would normally earn at work, minus this small stipend. Jury duty is compulsory.

Federal courts and tribunals

The Victorian court system includes federal courts. These are courts that apply laws made by the federal parliament in Canberra. These courts include the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. The High Court of Australia is also a federal court.

The federal courts in Melbourne primarily sit at the Commonwealth Law Courts on the corner of William and La Trobe streets.

High Court of Australia

The High Court is Australia’s federal constitutional court and the highest court of appeal. Headed by the Chief Justice of the High Court, the High Court interprets and applies the law of Australia; decides cases of special federal significance, including challenges to the constitutional validity of laws; and hears appeals, by special leave, from federal, state and territory courts, including the Supreme Court of Victoria.

When deciding whether to grant special leave to appeal, the High Court considers whether the matter involves a question of law that is of public importance, whether there are differences of opinion between courts or within a court as to the state of the law on the matter and whether the appeal should be heard in the interests of the administration of justice.

The High Court was established in 1901 under the Australian Constitution. The first sitting of the High Court took place in the Banco Court of the Supreme Court in Melbourne on 6 October 1903. While most sittings are held in the national capital, Canberra, the court may sit in the capital cities of the states. Applications for special leave are heard one day each month in Melbourne or Sydney and on occasion by video link with other capital cities. Check the High Court website for visiting dates.

Federal Court of Australia

The Federal Court of Australia deals with complex matters of federal law, including shipping law, bankruptcy, corporations law, commercial and competition law, constitutional and administrative law, native title and some criminal matters. The Federal Court of Australia also deals with appeals from the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

The Federal Court opened in 1977.

Federal Circuit Court of Australia

The Federal Circuit Court of Australia deals with 90 per cent of all family law cases in Australia (except Western Australia). It also has a wide jurisdiction to hear general federal law matters. In family law, the court generally deals with divorce applications, applications for parenting and/or property orders, and with child support and enforcement issues. The court’s general federal law jurisdiction includes human rights, bankruptcy, migration, industrial law, copyright and other intellectual property, discrimination, privacy, consumer law, admiralty and administrative law.

In Victoria, the main registries are located in Melbourne and Dandenong. The court also sits in a number of regional locations.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT)

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal independently reviews certain decisions made under Commonwealth law. The AAT reviews decisions on their merits which means taking a fresh look at all facts, law and policy relating to the decision and arriving at their own decision.

The most common types of decisions the AAT reviews are related to:

  • child support
  • Commonwealth workers’ compensation
  • family assistance, paid parental leave, social security and student assistance
  • migration and refugee visas and visa‑related decisions
  • taxation
  • veterans’ entitlements.

The AAT also reviews decisions relating to:

  • Australian citizenship
  • bankruptcy
  • civil aviation
  • corporations and financial services regulation
  • customs
  • freedom of information
  • the National Disability Insurance Scheme
  • passports
  • security assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

The AAT commenced operations on 1 July 1976.