The history of the District Court of NSW dates back to the colonial era.
By the middle of 19th century, the court system in NSW consisted of:
- The Supreme Court of NSW which, under the Third Charter of Justice sealed in 1823, had a criminal and civil jurisdiction similar to that of the superior Courts of England;
- Courts of General and Quarter Sessions which could deal with “crimes and misdemeanours not punishable by death”;
- Courts of Requests in Sydney and the County of Cumberland, with a civil jurisdiction not exceeding £30; and
- Courts of Petty Sessions, which dealt with criminal misdemeanours in a summary way and had a civil jurisdiction up to £10 (or £30 if the defendant consented).
With the discovery of gold in 1851, the colony’s population increased and became more dispersed. As the colony prospered, litigation grew, and crime did not decline. The Supreme Court began to fall seriously into arrears, and this was not helped by the fact that it did not visit a lot of towns. Courts of Quarter Sessions were also few in number and had no civil jurisdiction.
By the mid 1850s there were calls for a revision of the court system to meet the growing needs of the colony. As a result, the District Court Act 1858 (22 Vic No 18) was assented to 12 November 1858.
This Act established District Courts, as courts of records, to replace Courts of Requests and divided the Colony into Districts. It conferred upon the District Courts a civil jurisdiction. It also provided for the appointment of a District Court Judge as Chairman of any Court of Quarter Sessions or General Sessions, to be held within the limits of the District for which that Judge was appointed.
The purpose of the Act was briefly described in The Practice of the District Courts of NSW by W.J. Foster and C.E.R. Murray (Sydney, 1870), as follows:
'District Courts were established by the Legislature for the purpose of simplifying legal proceedings in the recovery of amounts under £200, and lessening the expenses of attending such proceedings, as well as to relieving the Supreme Court of some portion of the overwhelming civil business which the rapid progress of the colony had lately engendered.
The Act providing for the institution of these Courts also extended the jurisdiction of Courts of General and Quarter Sessions of the Peace, and prepared the way for a great increase in their numbers, under the presidency of District Court Judges as Chairmen, whereby criminal proceedings have been much facilitated, especially in the more distant and outlying portions of the country…'
The District Courts Act 1858 remained in force until 1973, although the jurisidiction of the Court was increased from time to time.
The District Court Act 1973 commenced on 1 July 1973. It abolished the District Courts and Courts of Quarter Sessions and established one District Court of New South Wales, with a statewide criminal and civil jurisdiction.
On 1 January 2012, the District Court was vested with a summary jurisdiction to determine summary prosecutions pursuant to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.