Last Updated 19 December 2016
The Magistrates courts of Queensland are established under the Magistrates Courts Act 1921 (Qld) (Magistrates Courts Act) and the Justices Act 1886 (Qld) (Justices Act). It is the first tier of the Queensland courts system and is the busiest of all Queensland courts. There are Magistrates courts in over 100 locations around Queensland.
A Magistrates Court is usually constituted by one magistrate sitting alone (s 16 Magistrates Courts Act). Magistrates are appointed under the Magistrates Courts Act, which details the qualifications of magistrates, how they are appointed, the role of the Chief Magistrate and their general functions.
Each Magistrates Court has three kinds of jurisdiction (i.e. matters it has power to deal with). Generally, all criminal matters will commence in the Magistrates Court and proceed either through the court’s summary jurisdiction or committal jurisdiction.
Summary criminal jurisdiction
Under s 3 of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld) (Criminal Code), there are two categories of offences:
- regulatory offences.
Criminal offences include crimes, misdemeanors and simple offences. That same provision and s 22A of the Justices Act provide a Magistrates Court with jurisdiction to hear minor criminal offences. The Magistrates Court hears simple offences including traffic offences and public order offences such as disorderly behaviour and drunkenness. The Regulatory Offences Act 1985 (Qld) creates a further class of minor offences called regulatory offences and gives magistrates the jurisdiction to deal with them. Regulatory offences include shoplifting (as opposed to a charge of stealing) and minor wilful destruction of property.
Magistrates may also hear some more serious criminal offences (i.e. crimes and misdemeanors). This is usually dependent upon the type of criminal offence. There are some criminal offences that can be dealt with in the Magistrates Court only by the choice of either the defendant or the prosecutor, and the magistrate agreeing for the case to be heard in the Magistrates Court. There are also a number of more serious offences (mostly property offences) that, regardless of any election by prosecution or defence, must be dealt with in the Magistrates Court, provided the magistrate agrees or exceptional circumstances exist (ss 552BA, 552D Criminal Code). One such category of offences that must be dealt with summarily is any offence where the maximum penalty is not more than three years imprisonment. Thus many more serious offences will now be determined in the Magistrates Court. The rules governing this are contained in ss 552A–552J of the Criminal Code.
All criminal offences other than simple offences and regulatory offences are indictable offences. Although some indictable offences may be heard in the Magistrates Court, indictable offences can result in charges that are heard by a judge and jury in the District Court or the Supreme Court. An accused person has no longer the inherent right to be tried by a jury for many serious offences.
When a matter is not to be determined in the Magistrates Court and before it proceeds to the District or Supreme Court for a judge and jury to hear the matter, a committal hearing is held in the Magistrates Court. During this hearing, the prosecution must establish that the defendant charged with an indictable offence has a case to answer. The committal hearing is not a full hearing of the evidence. Instead it allows the accused person to be fully informed of the evidence against them. A magistrate must consider whether there is enough evidence to send the matter to a judge and jury for a full hearing of all the facts (for more information see the Court Processes chapter).
Magistrates can decide cases when the amount in dispute or damages claimed does not exceed $150 000 (s 4 Magistrates Courts Act). In certain circumstances, it may be possible for the Magistrates Court to hear a claim of more than $150 000 where the parties agree in writing (s 4A Magistrates Courts Act). A claim may also be heard where one party chooses to reduce the original claim to the prescribed limit or less (s 5 Magistrates Courts Act).
In addition, magistrates can make orders in relation to various other matters under particular Queensland and Commonwealth laws. For example, a magistrate can hear cases arising under:
- family law—a magistrate can deal with contested maintenance matters, uncontested parenting orders and uncontested property matters with the consent of the parties. A magistrate can also deal with certain child support matters but cannot grant a divorce. In contested cases involving children or property, the matter is normally transferred to the Family Court for a decision
- legislation concerning fences—a magistrate can make orders in respect of fences between adjoining properties, although where the dispute is under $25 000, the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal also has jurisdiction
- domestic violence applications
- peace and good behaviour orders
- applications for child protection orders.
Appeals from the Magistrates Court
Appeals against decisions of magistrates, in both criminal and civil matters, are heard in the District Court.
In criminal matters, one may appeal against conviction (the sentence imposed such as severity or leniency) or on a question (or interpretation) of law without permission from the courts or other parties (i.e. ‘as of right’). The prosecution may appeal against the dismissal of the charge of a simple or regulatory offence. Dismissal of charges for indictable offences may not be appealed (s 222(2)(b) Justices Act). There is also no appeal against a conviction where a defendant has entered a guilty plea (s 222(2)(c) Justices Act). Both the defendant and prosecution can appeal against a decision of a magistrate to deal with a criminal charge in the Magistrates Court.
In civil matters, where the property in dispute is worth $25 000 or more, an appeal to the District Court lies as of right. If the amount involved is less than $25 000, leave to appeal must be obtained from a District Court judge (i.e. the appellant must ask the District Court for permission to appeal). Leave or permission will only be granted if some important point of law or issue of justice is involved (s 45 Magistrates Courts Act).
An appeal from a magistrate exercising family law jurisdiction lies to the Family Court and is an appeal as of right. Such an appeal will be heard de novo (i.e. anew), allowing the matter to be reheard in full and new evidence to be led.