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The High Court of Australia

The following summary was adapted from the official brochure of the High Court of Australia. The World Wide Legal Information Association expresses it's gratitude to the High Court for providing the text of this brochure for reproduction on the WWLIA site.


History of the Court


The High Court of Australia is the highest court in the Australian judicial system, the court of "last resort", the court of final appeal. It has its origins in the Australian Constitution, section 71 of which states:

"The judicial power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Supreme Court, to be called the High Court of Australia, and in such other federal courts as Parliament creates, and in such other courts as it invests with federal jurisdiction. The High Court shall consist of a Chief Justice, and so many other Justices, not less than two, as the Parliament prescribes."

The basic functions of the High Court are to interpret and uphold the Constitution; to interpret Federal law and to hear cases referred from other courts.

History of the Court

The first sitting of the High Court of Australia took place in Melbourne on October 6, 1903. It was a distinguished bench, comprising three people who had been prominent in the Federal movement including Sir Edmund Barton (first Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Constitutional Conventions) and Sir Samuel Griffith (former premier of Queensland).

The Court remained at three Justices until 1906 when the bench was increased to five. In 1912, an additional two Justices were appointed but during 1933, as a result of financial stringencies of the Great Depression, the Court was reduced to six. The Court was restored to its present level of seven Justices in 1946.

In 1973, the Court was transferred to Sydney and then, to its permanent home in the High Court Building, Canberra, in 1980.

While most sittings are held in Canberra, the High Court occasionally sits in the capital cities of Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania once each year if warranted by the amount of business. Also, applications for special leave to appeal are heard on one day of each month, alternately in Melbourne and Sydney and occasionally by satellite video-link with Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.


Justices of the High Court are appointed by the Governor-General of Australia on the advice of the government. The High Court of Australia Act provides for the federal Attorney-General to consult with the Attorney-Generals of the states before an appointment is recommended to the Governor-General.

Up until 1977, members of the High Court were appointed for life. However, following a 1977 referendum, all Justices appointed after then were required to retire at the age of 70. There are no Justices of the High Court left with life appointments.

As of March, 1996, there have been ten Chief Justices and 35 Justices since the Court's inauguration. Four Chief Justices were appointed from outside the Court and six were appointed directly from the High Court bench. The current Chief Justice is Gerard Brennan, appointed in April 1995.


The High Court of Australia is able to deal with cases which come to it on appeal or which begin in the High Court itself.

Cases which involve interpretation of the Australian Constitution, or where the Court may be invited to depart from one of its previous decisions, or where the Court considers the principle of law involved to be one of major public importance, are normally determined by a full bench of all seven Justices. Other cases which come to the High Court for final determination involve appeals against the decisions of the supreme courts of the States and Territories, of the Federal Court of Australia or of the Family Court of Australia, and these are dealt with by a court of not less than two Justices. In addition, there are certain matters which can be heard and determined by a single Justice.

The subject matter of the cases heard by the High Court traverse the whole range of Australian law. It includes, for instance, arbitration, contract, company law, copyright, court-martial, criminal law and procedure, tax law, insurance, personal injury, property law, family law, trade practices, etc.

Most of the Court's work relates to the hearing of appeals against decisions of other courts. There is no automatic right to have an appeal heard by the High Court. Parties who wish to appeal must persuade the Court in a preliminary hearing that there are special reasons to cause the appeal to be heard.

Decisions of the High Court are final. There are no further appeals once a matter has been decided by the High Court. Decisions of the High Court are binding on all other courts throughout Australia.

Rules of the Court, which are made by the Justices, set out the procedural steps that barristros and solicitors must comply with in preparing a case for hearing, including the preparation of an "appeal book". The appeal book is prepared by the appellant's lawyer and contains basic legal or factual documentation for the Court to consider the issue raised by the appeal.

During the hearing, barristers representing the parties supplement their appeal books by presenting their arguments orally to the Court.

The Court rarely gives its decision (i.e. the judgment) at the end of the hearing. Rather, the decision is "reserved' and presented some time after the hearing. After hearing the appeal, each Justice on the bench makes their own decision on the case. Where the legal conclusions of the Justices are not unanimous in a particular case, the decision of the majority prevails.

The usual practice is for Justices to prepare written reasons for their decisions which are published by the Court. Printed copies of the judgments are given to the parties involved immediately after the decision is announced by the Court. Copies of judgements are available for sale to the public. The decisions are then published in law reports and are now available on computerised databases including on the Internet.

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