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The federal courts are made up of four courts:

  1. The High Court;
  2. The Federal Court;
  3. The Family Court; and
  4. The Federal Magistrate's Court

The High Court

The High Court is the highest court in the Australian judicial system. The High Court was established in 1901 by Section 71 of the Constitution.

The functions of the High Court are to:
  • interpret and apply the laws of Australia;
  • to decide cases which have special federal significance, these mainly include cases on the Constitution; and
  • to hear appeals, by special leave, from Federal, State and Territory courts.

The High Court is based in Canberra, where it has its own building. Tthe High Court can also sit in the other capital cities of the States for certain matters.

The High Court has seven judges. The leader of the seven judges is called the Chief Justice. Judges on the High Court are considered to be the best in the country and are required by the Constitution to retire when they reach the age of 70.

The subject matter of the cases heard by the High Court covers every part of Australian law. It includes, for instance, arbitration; contract law; company law; copyright; courts-martial; criminal and procedural law; tax law; insurance; personal injury; property law; family law, and trade practices.

Most of the court's work relates to the hearing of appeals against decisions of other courts. To have an appeal heard by the High Court, applicants must apply for special leave. This is a process where two of the judges from the High Court decide whether the case is worthy of going to the High Court. Once a High Court makes a decision on a case, it is final. The rules stated in that decision will then became law for other judges in lower courts to use when they hear similar cases. This is called the rule of precedent.

Federal Court

The Federal Court of Australia was created by the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 and began to hear cases on 1 February 1977.

The Federal Court hears cases dealing with a range of subject matters. The Federal Court is part of the federal system, so it only hears issues about laws made by the federal parliament and not laws made by the States.

The Federal Court was created to hear cases on, bankruptcy; workplace relations; Native Title; trade practices; human rights; intellectual property and consumer protection. It can also review some federal government decisions in areas including social security; immigration and taxation. The court can also hear certain appeal cases from courts, such as the ACT Supreme Court and the Federal Magistrates Court.

When the court sits, it either has one judge or three judges, depending on whether it is an appeal case. Like the High Court, judges in the Federal Court have to retire at 70.

Family Court

The Family Court of Australia was created by the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth)  to look after the law that applies to families. The court was created to improve the way in which the law deals with marriages and divorces and to provide specialised services and facilities for children of separating couples.

The Family Court is different from all other courts because of the sensitive nature of dealing with families who are breaking up. Because of this, judges are all specialists in the area and there are counselling services and child-minding facilities within the court.

What exactly does the Family Court do?

  • Dissolves marriages;
  • Divides up the property of divorcing couples; and
  • Makes orders, deciding which parent will look after the children and where they will live.

The court also tries to use dispute resolution. This means they try to encourage people to work out their own problems, with the help of a counsellor, without the court having to make orders.

Federal Magistrates Court

This court was established in 1998 to act as the lowest level Federal Court. It deals with a wide range of matters, including family law and child support; administrative law; bankruptcy law and consumer protection law.

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Question 1/5

1. The Federal Court hears cases on:

insurance and family law

criminal law

personal injury

bankruptcy and native title


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