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What is civil law

Civil law deals with the rights and obligation of individuals or legal entities.

A civil proceeding may or may not involve a dispute between parties:

Cases involving disputes

Civil cases often involve disagreements between parties. These are called contentious cases. Disputes can occur over various issues. Common examples include disputes over goods and services, tenancy agreements, employment issues or corporate matters.

A party (an individual or legal entity) can start legal proceedings against another party in the civil courts once an event which creates a cause of action occurs. A cause of action is the set of facts which entitles one party to start a court action against another party. A civil action must usually be brought within a certain time limit from the date of the cause of action.

If the claim is successful, the court may order a monetary remedy (known as damages) or other court orders.

This is a private dispute. This means the state is not involved, except to provide the judge and court services.

Cases not involving disputes

In some cases, a party may file an application to the court even if there is no disagreement with another party.

For example, depositing a power of attorney with the court.

Note: In general, civil disputes occur between private parties. The state is usually not involved. If public officers or entities are involved in a civil dispute (for example when purchasing goods or services) they participate just as if they were private parties.

Where are civil disputes heard

Where a civil dispute can be heard depends on several factors, including the subject matter of the dispute and the amount of money involved. Refer to the following table for more information.

(Note: Scroll within the table to see more.)

 

Small Claims Tribunals

Employment Claims Tribunals

Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals

Protection from Harassment Court

Magistrate's Court

District Court

High Court (General Division)

(If there is a claim for compensation)

Claim limit

Up to $20,000.

(Or up to $30,000 if both parties consent in writing.)

Up to $20,000.

(Or up to $30,000 for tripartite-mediated disputes.)

Up to $20,000.

(Simplified proceedings) Up to $20,000.

Up to $60,000.

Up to $250,000.

(Or up to $500,000 for claims for road accidents or personal injuries from industrial accidents).

No limit.

The dispute may involve...

Disputes over the purchase of goods or services, or involving rental agreements not exceeding 2 years for residential properties.

(View more examples of possible claims.)

Disputes between employers and employees involving salary or wrongful dismissal.

 

(View more examples of possible claims.)

Disputes between neighbours involving unreasonable interferences with the enjoyment or use of places of residence.

(View more examples of possible claims.)

Disputes involving harassment.

(View more examples of possible claims.)

Any case covered by the law.

Any case covered by the law.

 

Any case covered by the law. This includes specific types of cases only heard by the High Court, such as:

  • Bankruptcy.
  • Company winding up.
  • Admiralty.
  • Mortgage actions.

Time limit

Filed within 2 years of the event that entitles one to start a court action against another party.

Filed within 2 years of the event that entitles one to start a court action against another party.

Filed within 2 years of the event that entitles one to start a court action against another party.

Filed within 2 years (simplified proceedings) or 6 years (standard proceedings) of the event that entitles one to start a court action against another party.

The time limit depends on the type of case. Refer to these examples.

The time limit depends on the type of case. Refer to these examples.

The time limit depends on the type of case. Refer to these examples.

 

Find out more about small claims.

Find out more about employment claims.

Find out more about community and neighbour disputes.

Find out more about protection from harassment.

Find out more about Magistrate's Court civil cases.

Find out more about District Court civil cases.

Find out more about High Court civil cases.

Note: This table is for informational purposes only. It may not be exhaustive and does not constitute legal advice. If you are unsure of which court to begin your civil case in, please seek legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Overview of a civil dispute

This is an overview of a civil proceeding involving a dispute between parties, filed in the Magistrate's Court, District Court or High Court.

  • One party files an application in court (the plaintiff) to start formal court proceedings.
    • If the party against whom the application is filed (the defendant) does nothing, the plaintiff may obtain summary judgment against the defendant.
    • If the defendant settles, the case concludes.
    • If the defendant disputes the case, the case proceeds for trial.
  • During trial, the plaintiff and defendant present their cases to a judge, who will decide the outcome.
  • If the plaintiff or defendant is not satisfied with the court's decision, they may choose to appeal.
Note
The process may differ according to the type of dispute and the circumstances of the case. Find out more about different types of civil cases.

Who is involved in a civil case

A civil case usually involves the following:

Party who files an application

The party who files an application may be known as the applicant, claimant or plaintiff, depending on the type of case. They must be able to prove their case, else their application will fail.

If the party is represented by a lawyer, the lawyer will be called their counsel. The counsel's role is to represent the party's interests. The counsel, however, also has an ethical duty to the court and cannot mislead the court in any way.

There may be multiple applicants, claimants or plaintiffs in a case. They may each pursue their own interests and do not necessarily need to cooperate.

Party against whom an application is filed

The party against whom an application is filed may be known as the defendant or respondent, depending on the type of case.

If the party is represented by a lawyer, the lawyer will be called their counsel. The counsel's role is to represent the party's interests. The counsel, however, also has an ethical duty to the court and cannot mislead the court in any way.

There may be multiple defendants or respondents in a case. They may each pursue their own interests and do not necessarily need to cooperate.

Judges and judicial officers

In court, proceedings are held before one or more judges or judicial officers. These officials are representatives of the state. They hear the arguments from parties and decide on the outcome of the case according to the law.

They are impartial and not for or against either side. You must address all judicial officials as "your honour" and obey their instructions when in court.

In the Supreme Court

In the Supreme Court, your case may be heard by either a judge or a registrar.

Judges of the Supreme Court are the most senior of judicial officials. There are 3 type of judges:
  • Justices of Appeal, who sit in the Court of Appeal and hear only appeal cases.
  • Justices, who sit in the High Court but sometimes may also hear appeals.
  • Judicial Commissioners, who sit in the High Court. Judicial Commissioners are generally more junior and have yet to be permanently emplaced as a justice.
Supreme Court registrars usually sit in administrative hearings designed to sort out details before the case goes to a judge. The most senior registrar is the Registrar of the Supreme Court, who is assisted by the deputy registrar, senior assistant registrars and assistant registrars.

In the State Courts

In the State Courts, your case may be heard by a district judge, magistrate or deputy registrar. District judges are more senior and can hear more serious cases.

A district judge hears cases in a District Court. For civil claims, this means the recovery of sums not exceeding $250,000 (or $500,000 for claims for road traffic accidents or personal injuries from industrial accidents).

A district judge will hear civil cases in open court, unless otherwise ordered. The judgment (decision) of a district judge is final and conclusive, subject to appeal to the High Court.

Find out more details about the powers and jurisdiction of a District Court in the State Courts Act.

Note: A district judge may also hear cases in a Magistrate's Court. In such instances, they will only have the powers and jurisdiction of a magistrate.

A magistrate hears cases in a Magistrate's Court. For civil claims, this means the recovery of sums not exceeding $60,000.

A magistrate will hear civil cases in open court, unless otherwise ordered. The judgment (decision) of a magistrate is final and conclusive, subject to appeal to the High Court.

Find out more details about the powers and jurisdiction of a Magistrate's Court in the State Courts Act.

Before a case goes to trial in the State Courts, a deputy registrar may hear interlocutory matters in chambers (meaning the hearing takes place in private and cannot be attended by the public).

A deputy registrar has the same jurisdiction and powers as a district judge, according to the State Courts Act and the Rules of Court.

Deputy registrars also assist the with administrative duties related to a case.

(If applicable) Witness

A witness is someone who gives oral statements of facts in court or in a judge's hearing chambers. Find out more about being a witness.

Note
There may be other court officers involved in a civil case, such as mediators (for alternative dispute resolution) or bailiffs (for enforcement).

Find out more

Note: Certain civil cases that are held in open court are open to members of the public, due to the principle of open justice. Find out more about attending court sessions.

 

Resources

Related questions

A legal entity is an organisation recognised by the law as capable of having legal rights and responsibilities. As far as possible, the law treats a legal entity like a person. This means an entity can sue and be sued in civil cases.

Examples of entities that may be involved in a civil court proceeding include:

  • A company.
  • A variable capital company.
  • A limited liability partnership.
  • An unincorporated association.
  • A registered trade union.

In legal proceedings, an entity must be represented by a person, who must have authorisation from the entity's controlling body (such as board of directors) to represent the entity.

Find out how to represent an entity in legal proceedings.


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