The Magistrates Court
The Magistrates Court is the ‘workhorse’ of the legal system. The vast majority of people who have contact with the courts will do so through the Magistrates Court. The Magistrates Court deals with the bulk of criminal matters in Tasmania. It also deals with civil cases up to a money limit of $50,000 (soon $100,000), with unlimited jurisdiction by consent of the parties, and criminal cases which are not heard by a jury. The money limit changes from time to time by proclamation, to reflect the value of the dollar. Plaintiffs often reduce a claim in order to keep the matter in the Magistrates Court, or to keep the matter in the small claims tribunal division of the Magistrates Court.
The Magistrates Court performs multiple functions. The courts hear preliminary proceedings, formerly known as ‘committal proceedings’, which test the evidence on serious criminal offences before they go to the Supreme Court. The Youth Division of the Magistrates Court is part of the Magistrates Court. The Youth Division operates under its own legislation. Magistrates also act as Coroners, conducting inquiries or ‘inquests’ into deaths.
The Magistrates Court takes its name from the magistrates who are its ‘judges’. Magistrates are appointed by public advertisement. The administrative head of the Magistrates Court is the Chief Magistrate. The Chief Magistrate is assisted by the Deputy Chief Magistrate. Each of the three regions of the State has its resident magistrates who also sit in smaller centres. Magistrates are addressed in court as ‘Your Honour’, or ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.
An important part of the Magistrates Court is the ‘Small Claims Division’. This part of the Court deals with civil cases with a money limit of up to $5,000. Its purpose is to deal with cases as cheaply and efficiently as possible by cutting down on formal legal procedures and encouraging negotiated settlements. Lawyers can only represent people in the Small Claims Division in very rare instances.
Under new rules, civil cases proceed quickly through the Magistrates Court. All cases go through compulsory mediation with emphasis put on the parties to settle the case or to settle as many issues in the case as possible by means of aggressive case management procedures and cost penalties.