High Court of Australia
The High Court forms one of the three arms of the national government, the others being the Parliament of Australia (House of Representatives, and Senate) and Executive (Governor-General of Australia acting on advice of the Ministers).
The High Court is mandated by section 71 of the Constitution of Australia, proclaimed on 1 January 1901, which vests in it the judicial power of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was constituted by the Judiciary Act 1903.
The High Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction, the power of judicial review over laws passed by the Parliament of Australia and the parliaments of the States, and interprets the Constitution of Australia.
The subject matter of the cases heard by the Court traverses the whole range of Australian law, including, for instance, arbitration, contract, company law, copyright, courts-martial, criminal law and procedure, tax law, insurance, personal injury, property law, family law, and trade practices.
Justices of the High Court
Persons appointed to be members of the High Court are termed 'Justice'. The head of the court is the 'Chief Justice'.
Originally, there were three Justices. The court bench was increased to seven Justices in 1912.
Appointments are officially made by the Governor-General taking advice from the Ministers. In practice, appointees are nominated by the Prime Minister, on advice from the Cabinet, particularly from the Attorney-General of Australia.
There are no qualifications for Justices in the Constitution other than that they must be under the retirement age of 70. The High Court of Australia Act requires that appointees have been a judge of a federal, state or territory court, or have been enrolled as a legal practitioner for at least five years with either the High Court itself or with a state or territory Supreme Court. There are no other formal requirements.
As of 2007 there have been 46 Justices, eleven of whom have been Chief Justice. The current two women Justices are the second and third women to sit on the bench.
Justices rarely make speeches outside the court, let alone of a controversial nature. The recent exception is Justice Michael Kirby who has spoken out on gay rights.
Justices sit on cases singly or in larger groupings.
A Full Court is two or more justices.
The Full Bench is all seven (if available) and is normally reserved for cases which involve interpretation of the 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.
As of 1988, Justices no longer wear wigs, but do wear formal robes. Barristers representing the parties appearing in court still wear wigs and robes, and present their arguments orally to the Court.
Decisions of the High Court are binding on all other courts throughout Australia.
Decisions are by majority of the Justices sitting on a case. Justices may publish dissenting decisions.
Justices may determine matters during a hearing, perhaps after conferring on the bench or during a break. However, the usual practice is for Justices to reserve a judgement and prepare written reasons for their decisions which are handed down by the Court at a later sitting. Printed copies of the judgements are given to the parties involved immediately after the decision is announced by the Court. The decisions are subsequently recorded in law reports and are now also available on computerised legal data bases.
Place of the court
The Court may sit in any place of its choosing, but normally does so in its purpose-built building completed in 1980 in Canberra, the national capital. However, soon after its establishment, a rotation of sittings became common practice, by single Justices or Full Courts using the Supreme Court of the State capitals, notably: Hobart, Tasmania in February; Brisbane, Queensland in June; Perth, Western Australia in September; and, Adelaide, South Australia in October.