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Role of the Courts - Supreme Court

The Supreme Court hears serious criminal cases, such as murder, attempted murder and certain serious drug offences. It also hears civil disputes with a value of $250,000 and over, and administrative law matters where people dispute government decisions affecting them. All criminal and some civil cases are decided by jury. Civil trials are usually decided by a judge although the parties to some disputes (eg. defamation) can ask for a jury to decide the case.


    Supreme Court

    Further Information

Revised: 10 March 2003
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Who makes the decisions in court?
A justice of the Supreme Court (a judge) presides over the Supreme Court. As in a District Court, the judge is referred to as "Your Honour". The judge makes sure that the proceedings in the courtroom conform to the law.

In criminal trials a jury decides whether the accused is guilty or not.

A jury is a group of people (twelve for criminal and four for civil cases) drawn randomly from the electoral roll. Together with the judge, the members of the jury listen to the evidence presented in the courtroom. At the end of the process, the judge sums up the evidence and explains to the jury what it is able to do (such as what evidence it can and can't take into account). The jury then 'retires' (leaves the courtroom) to discuss and decide the case.

If the accused is found guilty, the judge fixes the penalty, or sentence. This may include a prison term.

A judge alone usually decides civil cases. However, juries may decide some civil matters, such as defamation. Civil juries consist of four people.

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Who else attends court?
In a criminal matter the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions arranges for a prosecutor (usually a barrister), while the defendant's lawyers (usually a barrister) conduct the matter for the defence. The barristers are usually assisted by a solicitor who usually prepares much of the paperwork. Barristers usually conduct cases in court although solicitors are allowed to conduct them.

In a civil matter, each side appears either personally or with legal representatives.

Among the court personnel are: a judge's associate (who performs administrative tasks in the court especially for the judge); the bailiff (who is responsible for administering oaths to jurors and witnesses, announcing the beginning and end of court sessions etc.); and the court reporters (who are responsible for a verbatim transcript of the proceedings).

Proceedings in the Supreme Court are open to the public, including journalists. However, the judge can restrict public access to the court and media reporting of certain details of the trial (for example when children are involved).

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What happens when a case is brought to the Supreme Court?

This depends on whether it is a criminal or civil case.

Criminal cases

Because of the seriousness of their offences, many of the accused appearing in the Supreme Court have been remanded in custody from a Magistrates Court. This means that the accused has been kept in a prison since the time of the committal hearing because the magistrate believed that granting bail could present a risk to the community or the accused. Police or prison officers bring the accused from the prison to the court each day of a trial.

In a Supreme Court trial both sides call witnesses to back up their version of the events that led to the charge. Witnesses will usually be questioned by both sides.

When all the evidence has been presented each side addresses the jury. The judge explains the law to the jury. If the jury finds the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the judge will pass sentence.

If found not guilty, the accused will be released.

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Civil cases

When a civil dispute worth more than $250,000 cannot be settled by discussions out of court, one side may decide to take the dispute to the Supreme Court.

The legal representatives of both sides present their cases, often calling and questioning witnesses.

Juries can be used to decide civil cases. In practice, however, only a small number of disputes, such as some defamation cases, come before a jury. Where a jury is not used, the judge makes the decision.

When all the evidence has been presented, the judge or jury decide on the facts, and in either case the judge then issues an order based on that decision.

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Can a decision be appealed against?
Generally the parties in dispute may appeal against the decisions of the Supreme Court.

All appeals from the Supreme Court go directly to the Court of Appeal.

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Where does the Supreme Court sit?
Supreme Court judges are stationed permanently in Cairns, Rockhampton and Townsville as well as Brisbane. The Supreme Court also visits other towns throughout the State. These are called circuit towns. When the Supreme Court sits in a circuit town it is called the Circuit Court.

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What is the role of the Court of Appeal?

The Court of Appeal is a division of the Supreme Court of Queensland, the other division being the Trial Division. The Court of Appeal exercises both civil and criminal jurisdiction. The Court of Appeal hears appeals from decisions made in the Trial Division and District Court and from other courts and tribunals.

Much of the work of the Court of Appeal is appellate, although the Court of Appeal does have some original jurisdiction.

The Court of Appeal does not have a jury. It is made up of three justices (judges) of the Supreme Court, who together consider the appeal and make a judgment. The Court of Appeal does not hear the entire case again; it listens to the arguments by the opposing sides and decides whether some error was made or some crucial fact was overlooked in the original court case.

The Court of Appeal can uphold the decision of a lower court or it can uphold the appeal. If the appeal is against a sentence, the court can reduce or increase the sentence.

If the original decision is upheld, nothing changes. If the appeal is upheld, the Court of Appeal can make the order which it thinks should have been made originally, or it may order a retrial

Further information regarding the Court of Appeal is found in:

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