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How the Legal System Works

On this page

Where do I find the Law?

There are two main sources of law in Australia, case law or common law, based on the decisions of judges in the superior courts, and legislation, the law made by Parliament.

Because of the Federal system of Government in Australia, we have:

  1. Court decisions and legislation made by Federal Courts and Federal Parliament, and
  2. Court decisions and legislation made by State Courts and State Parliaments.

The NSW Law Handbook explains common law and statute law, criminal and civil law, and state and federal law. It also covers the state and federal court systems, juries, tribunals and commissions, time limits, and appeals.

The S.A. Law Handbook and Law Hand Book Online (Victoria) also have a good explanation of this.

The System of Government in NSW explains the parliament system in NSW. 

It is a trap for non-lawyers to rely on the first Act or Case that appears to answer their problem. There are likely to be many different laws that apply. Some sit quite comfortably together and others will seem to violently contradict each other.

It is as dangerous as diagnosing a medical condition and prescribing a treatment based on the internet, rather than relying on the many years of training and experience of a doctor.

New South Wales 1  legal system legal reserach case law legislation acts

No solicitor would use any of the free resources of Foolkit (or the Internet) on their own.

The Public are therefore best off looking at General Information on a reputable web site which should be written by somebody who is aware of the many sources of Law that apply to the topic and who has summed up all of this in what they have written.

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Understanding Legislation

What is the difference between Legislation, Bills, Acts, Regulations and Subordinate Legislation?

There is an excellent discussion of these topics at the South Australian Legislation Website.
Topics include:

  • Introduction and Terminology
  • Legislation
  • Bills
  • Acts
  • Subordinate legislation
  • Legislative power of the State
  • When is legislation necessary?
  • Commencement of an Act
  • Committal of an Act
  • Subordinate legislation made under an Act (Regulations, Policies, Rules and By-laws and Proclamations and notices)
  • Transitional arrangements
  • Basic features of legislation
  • Reading legislation

Changing the Law

Activist Rights is a web site on Activism and particularly looks at the issue of legal rights. They only include Victorian Law.

The aim of NSW Council for Civil Liberties is is to secure equal rights for everyone and oppose any abuse or excessive power by the State against its people.

Civil Liberties Australia is the National organisation.

Amnesty International is part of the global movement defending human rights and dignity. They work with people in Australia and our region to demand respect for human rights and protect people facing abuse.

How to write a law reform submission may also be useful.

Legal Words

What do words like "Plaintiff", "Consent Order" and "Injunction" mean?

General Information

About the legal system is part of The Law Handbook, a practical guide to the law in NSW. As well as having a summary of the fundamental concepts about how the law works, The Law Handbook has useful information on a wide range of legal issues. We mention those under each topic in Foolkit.

Decided Cases

If you a look at an individual section of an Act in AustLII, then [Noteup] on the menu will take you to cases where this section is discussed. Be aware that this is not always a comprehensive list.

New South Wales 3  legal system legal reserach case law legislation acts

Legal Research

The NSW Law Handbook has a section on Doing Legal Research.

The Federal Court of Australia has a collection of links for Students on Legal research and citation guides.

The suggest that school, tertiary or local public libraries are often the best place to start your research.

They Australian Libraries Gateway provides easy access to contact details, web sites and catalogues of libraries.

For more advanced students there is Thinking Like a Librarian: Tips for Better Legal Research.