Overview of court system

Australia

Australia

Australia’s courts operate under the common law legal system. Australia has a federal system of government, with legislative power divided between the federal branch of government and six state and two territory governments (for ease, we refer collectively to the states and territories as the state or states). Australia’s courts are similarly divided into eight separate state jurisdictions and a federal jurisdiction, which each operate on a parallel but independent hierarchy of courts. State and federal courts broadly have jurisdiction over the application of legislation enacted by the state and federal parliaments respectively. The High Court of Australia is the ultimate court of appeal in Australia for all court systems. There are also tribunals created by specific legislation under state and federal jurisdictions.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Austria

Austria

Austrian courts operate under the civil law system. This means that to a great extent substantive and procedural laws are codified. The Austrian court system is based on various low-level courts, including 115 District Courts (Bezirksgerichte) as well as 20 Regional Courts (Landesgerichte). The District Courts and Regional Courts are courts of first instance, the jurisdiction of which depend on the amount and the subject matter in dispute. Second instance courts can be either Regional Courts, (referred to above) or one of the four Higher Regional Courts (Oberlandesgerichte). For civil proceedings, the final court of appeal is the Supreme Court in Vienna (Oberster Gerichtshof). 

Specialized courts are established to deal with matters relating to commercial law, antitrust law, labor and social law. These special courts are either divisions within the above-mentioned courts or are self-standing special courts, such as the Labour and Social Court (Arbeits- und Sozialgericht) in Vienna.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Bahrain

Bahrain

The Kingdom of Bahrain operates under a civil law system with Civil Courts and Shari’a Courts. As such, there is no system of binding judicial precedent. All proceedings are conducted in Arabic and all non-Arabic documents submitted in proceedings must be translated.   

The Civil Courts are authorized to settle all commercial and civil cases, as well as all cases involving disputes related to personal status (i.e. issues related to marriage, child custody, alimony and inheritance) of non-Muslims. These courts have a four-tier system: 

  • the Court of Minor Causes and Court of Execution;
  • the High Court;
  • the High Court of Appeal; and
  • the Court of Cassation. 

The Court of Cassation is the highest civil judicial authority in Bahrain. 

It is common for these courts to appoint experts to assist them in relation to a variety of areas, such as finance, accounting, engineering and other technical matters.  

The Shari’a Courts hear all issues in relation to the personal status of Muslims of all nationalities. These courts have a four-tier system: 

  • the Lower Shari’a Court;
  • the Higher Shari’a Court;
  • the High Shari’a Court of Appeal; and
  • the Court of Cassation.

The Shari’a Courts are further divided into two sections: for Sunni Muslims and for Shia Muslims. 

In addition to the Civil Courts and Shari’a Courts, there is a Constitutional Court which acts as an independent judicial authority solely tasked with reviewing and ensuring that no enacted laws contradict the Constitution of Bahrain. The Constitutional Court also addresses the question of constitutionality of legal provisions which arise in any existing case and which are referred to it for determination. 

Bahrain’s courts have broad jurisdiction over legal disputes. For example, jurisdiction can be based upon a party having its domicile or place of business in Bahrain.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Belgium

Belgium

Belgium is a civil law jurisdiction and civil proceedings are regulated by the Belgian Code on Judicial Proceedings (the Code). The Code was enacted on October 10, 1967 and has, since then, been subject to various amendments. Precedents do not, in principle, bind the courts but they are nonetheless used as a source of authority. 

The Belgian civil court system is organized into three levels. At the highest level is the Supreme Court (Cour de cassation/Hof van Cassatie). Below it are five Courts of Appeal (Cour d’appel/Hof van beroep), dealing with all civil, commercial and criminal cases, and also the specialized Labour Court of Appeal (Cour du travail/Arbeidshof) dealing with labor law matters. Below the Courts of Appeal are the District Courts for each of the 12 districts. The District Courts are composed of the Tribunal of First Instance (Tribunal de première instance/rechtbank van eerste aanleg), the Labour Law Court (Tribunal du travail/arbeidsrechtbank) and the Commercial Court (Tribunal du commerce/rechtbank van koophandel). In addition to these, Belgium also has a specialized administrative court (Conseil d’Etat/Raad van Staat) and a constitutional court (Cour Constitutionnelle/Grondwettelijk Hof). 

Belgium also has 187 Justices of the Peace (juge de paix/vrederechter), which are small claim courts that deal with matters with a value of less than EUR2,500. These small claim courts also have jurisdiction over specific matters (e.g. civil and commercial leases).

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Brazil

Brazil

Brazil is a civil law country where codified laws take precedence over judicial decisions. However, over the last 60 years or so, Brazil has instituted several procedures that give greater weight than previously to the normative element of judicial decisions. The main reason for giving judicial decisions such importance is the overwhelming case load in courts and the need to make them more efficient. As a result, the term precedent and even the concept of stare decisis (i.e. determining points in litigation according to precedent), have started to appear more frequently in Brazil, in both scholars’ opinions and legislated changes enacted in recent years. 

Leaving aside special courts covering areas such as state military, military electoral and labor (which fall outside the scope of this report), the Brazilian civil justice system is structured into two different judicial branches:

  • federal courts; and
  • the courts organized by each state (state courts).

The jurisdiction of the federal and state courts does not overlap. The jurisdiction of the federal courts will depend on:

  • the matter under dispute (ratione materiae); and
  • the legal nature of each of the parties involved in the litigation (ratione personae).

State courts will hear cases that do not fall under the jurisdiction of other courts. 

The different federal and state courts and the type of disputes that they have jurisdiction over are as follows.

Federal Low Courts

These courts are scattered over the capitals and major cities of Brazil. In general, these courts have jurisdiction to hear most disputes in which the federal government, federal bodies and agencies and some federal companies take part as plaintiffs, defendants, or intervening parties. Also, these courts have jurisdiction over disputes involving a foreign government or organism and companies or individuals domiciled in Brazil or disputes involving one of the referred foreign entities and a Brazilian city government. 

State Low Courts

Each state is empowered to organize its own Judiciary Branch. These courts are spread almost all over the country and have jurisdiction to rule on most disputes between private parties. In addition, these State Low Courts have jurisdiction over disputes involving some federal corporations (like Petrobras) in case of disputes based on private law or state and municipal environmental laws, disputes involving the government of the respective state, as well as state-owned companies, and cities’ governments and city-owned companies. Furthermore, there are low courts specialized in bankruptcy (and even in case a federal body takes part of the bankruptcy/rehabilitation proceedings, for instance, as a creditor, this will not result in jurisdiction of the federal courts in detriment of the particular state bankruptcy court), and intellectual property disputes.

Federal High Courts

Their territorial jurisdiction is divided into five different regions (each covering two or more states). In most cases, these courts rule the appeals filed in the lawsuits started in the Federal Low courts located in the applicable region. 

State High Courts

Generally, these High Courts rule over the appeals filed in lawsuits started at the State Low Courts where the respective High Court is located.

Superior Court of Justice

This federal court is located in Brasilia, the country’s capital. One of the main roles of this court is to rule over appeals filed against decisions rendered either by a Federal or State High Court when:

  • such decisions contravene a treaty, convention or federal law; or
  • upon the analysis of a given treaty, convention or federal law, such decisions conflict with precedents issued by the Supreme Court of Justice or the Supreme Court on the same matter.

It is also the court responsible to grant the exequatur of foreign decisions or judgments in Brazil. An exequatur is a legal document that permits the enforcement of a foreign decision or judgment within the jurisdiction of the court giving the exequatur.

Supreme Court

It is the last of the Brazilian judiciary and, like the Superior Court of Justice, is located in Brasilia. One of the main roles of this federal court is to rule over appeals against decisions rendered by a Federal or a State High Court or, even, decisions rendered by the Superior Court of Justice, when these decisions:

  • directly contravene the Brazilian Constitution;
  • declare a given treaty, convention or federal law as unconstitutional; or
  • relate to a law or ordinance deemed valid and issued by the relevant authority in one of the Brazilian states or cities in detriment to the Brazilian Constitution. 

Further, Brazil does not have a separate administrative jurisdiction, which means that the judicial branch including the federal and state courts have jurisdiction over all disputes, including disputes involving the executive branch or state-owned entities. 

Court proceedings are generally public, except where court proceedings may be confidential, namely cases involving:

  • public or social interest;
  • family law;
  • information protected by the right to privacy; and
  • agreements with an arbitration clause.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Canada

Canada

This overview describes the judicial system and practices in the Federal Court of Canada as well as most provincial/territorial courts. Variations from the prevailing approach are identified for the province of Quebec, which has a legal system distinct from those of all other Canadian jurisdictions. 

Canada has a federal system of government where legislative power is divided between the federal Parliament on the one hand, and the ten provincial and three territorial Legislatures on the other. 

For the purpose of this summary on dispute resolution in Canada, the provinces and territories will simply be referred to as the provinces. Further, while this summary is intended to provide a general overview of litigation in Canada, each jurisdiction has its own procedural rules and practices that may differ slightly from the general information provided herein. 

The provinces each have a superior court. Superior courts are courts of inherent jurisdiction, which is to say that they hear cases on any matter except where a statute or rule specifically confers jurisdiction on some other court or tribunal. In addition to the provincial superior courts, there is also the Federal Court. The Federal Court does not have inherent jurisdiction but, rather, has a statutory jurisdiction over cases related to matters within the legislative jurisdiction of Parliament (e.g. intellectual property, aviation, competition (anti-trust), admiralty, immigration, etc.). The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court in Canada and it is not possible to appeal its decisions. 

Canadian jurisdictions have adopted the common law system, with one exception: the province of Quebec, which has adopted the civil law system. Specifically, Quebec has adopted the Civil Code of Quebec that is largely based on the Napoleonic Code of 1804. Unlike the common law, which has been described as judge-made law insofar as decisions are based on precedents, civil law – including civil law in Quebec – applies primarily the principles and rules codified in the jurisdiction’s civil code. 

In Quebec and in the federal court system, civil matters are tried by the judge alone. In the common law Canadian provinces, civil proceedings can be tried by a judge alone, or by a jury. However, jury trials are the exception in civil proceedings and are rare in commercial disputes. Of note, there is no constitutional right to a jury in a civil case. Further, Canadian courts have discretion to direct that a matter be tried by a judge alone. The court is likely to exercise this discretion where the case is of moderate or greater complexity. Civil jury trials are more common in personal injury claims and in some employment law cases. 

A monetary judgment obtained in a provincial superior court cannot be enforced outside of the province in question. However, all provinces (other than Quebec) have enacted legislation that provides a shortcut to the enforcement of extra-provincial judgments (with the exception of judgments obtained in Quebec).

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

China

China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a civil law jurisdiction and the judicial system is organized into four levels:

  • the Basic People’s Courts;
  • the Intermediate People’s Courts;
  • the High People’s Courts; and
  • the Supreme People’s Court.

Usually, major foreign related cases fall within the jurisdiction of the Intermediate People’s Court. A major foreign related case is a case: (i) in which either the claimant or defendant is a foreign party from outside mainland China; and (ii) that involves a large claim, has complex merits, or involves a large number of foreign parties. In practice, different courts apply different standards for determining what constitutes a large claim.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Finland

Finland

Finnish courts operate under the civil law system. Decisions of a District Court can be appealed to a Court of Appeal if leave for continued consideration is granted by the Court of Appeal. Decision of the Court of Appeal can be appealed to the Supreme Court, provided that the Supreme Court grants leave to appeal. In Finland, there are 27 District Courts, five Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

In addition, Finland also has Administrative Courts which review the decisions of the authorities. The decisions of the Administrative Courts can be appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court, which in some cases requires leave to appeal from the Supreme Administrative Court.

There are also certain special courts in Finland including:

  • the Market Court (hearing among others, IP, competition and public procurement cases);
  • the Labour Court;
  • the Insurance Court; and
  • the High Court of Impeachment.

Decisions of the Market Court and the Insurance Court can be appealed to the Supreme Court or the Supreme Administrative Court depending on the nature of the matter. Decisions of the Labour Court and the High Court of Impeachment are final and thus non-appealable.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

France

France

France has a civil law legal system, based on codified laws. When deciding cases, judges must interpret the law. Lower courts are not bound by higher courts’ decisions, although decisions of higher courts have a certain influence over the lower courts and are considered to be persuasive.

In France, the court system is divided into two major branches: a judicial branch and an administrative branch. First instance judicial courts are divided into courts of general jurisdiction (including criminal courts and civil courts) and specialized courts, such as labor courts and commercial courts.

The civil court system consists of District Courts and High Courts. District Courts (Tribunal d’instance) have jurisdiction over civil matters that have a value of between EUR4,000 and EUR10,000. District Courts have exclusive jurisdiction over certain types of litigation regardless of the value of the case. District Courts handle, for example, litigation between tenants and landlords that concern lease agreements.

High Courts (Tribunal de Grande Instance) are ordinary civil courts and have jurisdiction in all civil matters that have a value in excess of EUR10,000, except the types of litigation that other civil courts have exclusive jurisdiction over. In addition, French High Courts have exclusive jurisdiction, regardless of the value of claim, over matters involving civil status, filiation and nationality, as well as in any real estate litigation or patent and trademark infringement proceedings.

France has two specialized courts, the Labour Courts (Conseil des Prud’hommes), which have jurisdiction in all litigation cases between employers and employees, and the Commercial Courts (Tribunal de commerce), which handle cases involving commercial transactions or litigation between professionals. The judges in both Labour Courts and the Commercial Courts are non-professional judges.

There are 36 civil Courts of Appeal in France and one civil Supreme Court (Cour de cassation), which is the court of last instance.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Germany

Germany

Germany follows a civil law tradition and its civil jurisdiction consists of four types of judicial authorities:

  • there are approximately 640 Local Courts (Amtsgerichte);
  • 115 District Courts (Landgerichte);
  • 24 Higher Regional Courts (Oberlandesgerichte), and
  • the Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof).

Moreover, in proceedings before the District Courts which concern matters of trade and commerce and, in particular, business-to-business cases, the parties may request that the case be handled by a specialist chamber of commerce with a panel comprising of one professional judge and two commercial lay judges.

Before the District Courts and the Higher Regional Courts, legal representatives must be admitted to the German bar. In the Federal Supreme Court, only those attorneys who are specifically admitted to the German bar may appear.

German language is the mandatory language of the courts. Generally, all judicial documents and oral hearings will be in German. However, some Regional Courts offer the possibility of conducting oral hearings in English.

In general, the threshold for accessing the German courts to bring civil proceedings is low. Litigation risk is predictable and quantifiable as German law does not permit class actions, punitive damages or contingency fees. The Rule of Law Index 2019 published by the World Justice Project, ranks Germany third in the civil justice category, which measures whether ordinary people can resolve their grievances peacefully and effectively through the civil justice system. German court proceedings are also characterized by their efficiency and the absence of undue influence.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

In 1997, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong and Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region of the PRC. The Basic Law (which is a mini-constitution for Hong Kong) took effect on July 1, 1997 after the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the PRC. All the laws previously in force in Hong Kong (including common law, statutes, etc.) are maintained under the Basic Law except for any that contravene the Basic Law, and subject to any amendment by the Hong Kong Legislative Council. National laws of the PRC are not applied in Hong Kong except those listed in Annex III of the Basic Law, which concern matters such as consular privileges and immunities.

Hong Kong operates under the common law legal system and its courts are separate from those in the PRC. Commercial disputes exceeding HKD3 million (around USD385,000) are usually brought in the Court of First Instance of the High Court. For smaller claims, they are brought in the District Court or the Small Claims Tribunal. There are also specialized courts and tribunals, such as the Labour Tribunal and Lands Tribunal, which handle specific types of disputes. The highest appellate court in Hong Kong is the Court of Final Appeal, which hears appeals on both civil and criminal matters.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Hungary

Hungary

Hungary follows a civil law tradition, where codified statutes take precedence over judicial decisions. Disputes are resolved by a centralized four-level court system:

  • 111 district courts operate as first instance courts;
  • 20 general courts operate as first instance courts in some special cases and appellate courts in others;
  • five courts of appeal operate as exclusively appellate courts; and
  • the Curia operates as the ultimate supreme court in Hungary.

In addition, first instance labor law disputes and administrative proceedings are decided separately by one of the 20 administrative and labor courts (with the exception of certain special administrative cases, which go to the general courts instead).

Even though the Constitutional Court cannot be regarded as part of the Hungarian court system in a traditional sense, it has one important competence in litigation matters: a party may challenge a decision before the Constitutional Court if all available judicial remedies have been exhausted and the decision is based on a law that is incompatible with the Fundamental Law of Hungary, or if the judgment itself is unconstitutional.  

In 2018, Hungary’s procedural law went through a complete overhaul. New laws were introduced covering arbitration, civil, criminal and administrative court proceedings, in addition to new laws on administrative and tax proceedings. At the time of writing, there remains a substantial amount of uncertainty surrounding the interpretation of many provisions of these new laws.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Italy

Italy

Italy's legal system follows the civil law tradition, where codified statutes are of primary importance. The Italian civil court system is organized into a three-tier structure:

  • Courts of First Instance;
  • Courts of Appeal; and
  • the Supreme Court.

Rules on jurisdiction are set out in the Italian Code of Civil Procedure. These rules determine which Court of First Instance a particular case should be filed in. Territorial jurisdiction of the Courts of Appeal depends on the location of the Court of First Instance that issued the decision to be appealed.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Japan

Japan

Japan is primarily a civil law country, where codified laws predominate. However, case law offers non-binding guidance that may, in some cases, be persuasive, and may be relied upon providing it does not conflict with the codified laws.

The Supreme Court, the highest court in Japan, exercises final appellate jurisdiction within Japan’s judicial system. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear cases involving:

  • violations of the Constitution;
  • serious procedural breaches by the lower courts; and
  • important issues concerning the construction of laws and regulations.

Decisions in the Supreme Court are made either by the grand bench, composed of the entire body of 15 justices sitting together, or by one of the three petty benches, composed of five justices each.

There are eight high courts in Japan, each with territorial jurisdiction over one of eight regions of Japan. The eight high courts are located in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sendai, Sapporo and Takamatsu. High courts generally have appellate jurisdiction over judgments rendered by district courts and family courts, as well original jurisdiction for certain criminal matters. Typically, a case heard by the high court will be adjudicated by a panel of three judges. The Intellectual Property High Court is located in Tokyo and was established in April 2005 to handle cases relating to intellectual property, such as appeals from district courts in civil cases relating to patent rights and actions against decisions made by the Japan Patent Office.

There are 50 district courts in Japan, each with territorial jurisdiction over a single prefecture – with the noted exception of Hokkaido Prefecture, which is divided into four districts. These district courts are separated into branches, and there are 203 branches in total. The district court will generally be the court of first instance for civil and criminal matters, and also serves as the appellate court for judgments arising from summary courts. Cases heard in the first instance in district courts are adjudicated by either one or three judges, and appeals from summary courts are heard by three-judge panels.

There are 438 summary courts throughout the country. The summary courts have jurisdiction over civil cases involving claims for amounts of up to JPY1.4 million (c. EUR11,000) and certain criminal cases. Summary court cases are adjudicated by a single summary court judge.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Kuwait

Kuwait

The Kuwaiti legal system is a civil law jurisdiction that is a blend of French civil law, Islamic legal principles and Egyptian law. The Kuwaiti legal and regulatory framework is not as developed as Western legal systems. The applicable legal and regulatory principles are dynamic and subject to frequent changes in application and interpretation. This means that it is often necessary to liaise with the relevant government authorities in order to seek their confirmation on the application of the law in relation to particular business activities. In addition to obtaining confirmation of the current legislative and regulatory framework, an understanding of the current policies and interpretations in force and the practical approach to the resolution of these matters is important.

There are further difficulties in advising on the interpretation of applicable laws and regulations in Kuwait because the procedure for reporting legislation and court decisions is usually confidential and, when made public, the system for reporting decisions is not as developed as other jurisdictions. In addition, as Kuwait is a civil law jurisdiction, there is no binding system of judicial precedent as there is in common law jurisdictions.

The Kuwaiti courts have a three-tiered structure, comprised of:

  • General Courts; (Courts of First Instance);
  • Courts of Appeal; and
  • the Court of Cassation.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Mexico

Mexico

Mexico has a civil law legal system. It has federal, as well as local laws for each of the 32 states. Federal laws are applicable to all of the states, while local laws are limited to the state that enacted them. Courts are divided into Federal and State Courts:

  • the Federal judicial system includes:
    • District Courts;
    • Unitary Circuit Courts each with one magistrate;
    • Collegiate Circuit Courts each with three magistrates; and
    • the Supreme Court of Justice with eleven Justices.; and
  • the State (i.e. local) judicial system generally includes:
    • Peace Courts;
    • local Judges of First Instance;
    • local Courts of Appeal that serve as second instance courts, each consisting of three judges; and
    • a Superior Court of Justice for each state.
      The state judiciary is organized according to the Constitution of the respective state.

A contractual choice of jurisdiction in favor of a foreign court will be recognized by the Mexican courts, except where statute mandates the matter be heard in the courts of Mexico.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Netherlands

Netherlands

The Netherlands is a civil law jurisdiction, which means that Dutch courts operate under the Dutch Civil Code. Unlike in common law systems, in which decisions are primarily based on precedent, Dutch courts primarily look at the principles and rules codified in the Civil Code, although precedents are often used to strengthen a case.

Judicial authorities are organized into: (i) 11 district courts; (ii) 4 courts of appeal; and (iii) the Supreme Court. Each district court has a number of divisions. The cantonal division covers rental disputes, labor law and monetary claims of up to EUR25,000. The civil division of the relevant district court deals with commercial disputes with a value of over EUR25,000.

Most civil matters are decided by one judge alone at first instance. However, district courts also have a full-bench panel with three judges to deal with the more complex cases.

If a party disagrees with the district court judgment, the case may be appealed to a court of appeal and subsequently to the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the Netherlands. There is no appeal from a decision of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rulings serve as a guideline to the lower courts. Only matters of due legal process are dealt with by the Supreme Court, which accepts the facts of a case as determined by the lower court and only investigates whether the law has been correctly applied.

In addition to the above, to satisfy the growing demand for specialized dispute resolution, the Netherlands Commercial Court (NCC) was established on January 1, 2019. The NCC focuses on complex international commercial disputes. It offers experienced judges, delivers predictable and thus reliable judgments and faster resolution of disputes. Parties can agree to litigate in English. The estimated court fees for the NCC are EUR15,000. With the launch of the NCC, the Dutch judicature aims to provide a feasible alternative to arbitration.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Norway

Norway

Norway has a unitary (rather than federal) civil law court system that is comprised of:

  • 64 courts of first instance (63 District Courts and one Bankruptcy Court based in Oslo);
  • six regional Appeal Courts; and
  • the Supreme Court, which is Norway’s final court of appeal based in Oslo.

District Courts are normally the courts of first instance in most medium to high-value civil disputes. Cases in the District Court are usually presided over by a single professional judge. The professional judge may be assisted by two lay judges or expert lay judges if the parties request or the judge deems such assistance appropriate.

In many cases, civil claims must be submitted to and dealt with by a relevant Conciliation Board before they are submitted to a district court. While normally this requirement only applies to low value claims (under NOK125,000), even higher-value claims must be submitted to a Conciliation Board if one of the parties is not represented by a Norwegian lawyer. Conciliation Boards are staffed with non-lawyers and have two broadly defined functions. First, they provide a facilitated mediation service aimed at helping parties to reach an amicable settlement or establish whether an asserted claim has a legitimate basis. Second, Conciliation Boards can issue judgments, which may be appealed to the relevant district court. Parties may bypass the Conciliation Board and, instead, submit their dispute directly to the district court in certain circumstances, including where the dispute is of sufficient value and both parties are legally represented.

In addition to Norwegian courts and Conciliation Boards, parties may also refer their disputes to quasi-judicial bodies known as Administrative or Complaints Tribunals. An example of such a body is the Financial Complaints Tribunal (Finansklagenemnda), which hears disputes between consumers and banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions. Administrative and Complaints Tribunals of this nature often offer a highly specialized and low-cost alternative to proceedings in Norwegian courts, and are in some circumstances a pre-requisite to commencing a claim in a district court. However, note that the decisions of such tribunals are not binding.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Poland

Poland

The Polish legal system is codified and part of the civil law tradition. The principal act which governs civil proceedings in Poland is the Civil Procedure Code (CPC) and it applies to proceedings before the common courts. As Poland is a member of the EU, EU law is fully implemented in Poland and the courts are required to apply EU regulations directly.

Judicial authority in Poland is exercised by courts (the Supreme Court, common courts and administrative courts) and tribunals (the Constitutional Tribunal and the Tribunal of State). Common courts, by default, exercise general jurisdiction in almost all civil and criminal matters. Common courts in Poland comprise the following:

  • district courts (with jurisdiction to hear small cases at first instance);
  • regional courts (which hear cases at first instance with a value exceeding PLN75,000 (c. EUR17,500) and appeals from district courts); and
  • appeal courts (which hear appeals from regional courts).

The common courts have civil, criminal, commercial, labor, companies registry and bankruptcy divisions. The Supreme Court is primarily a court of cassation (i.e. it will only interpret the relevant law and not re-examine the facts of a case), capable of reviewing second instance judgments on an extraordinary basis.

With the exception of certain judgments of the Supreme Court, judgments do not constitute binding precedents. However, judgments in similar cases, in particular those given by the Supreme Court, may be relied upon by the courts in support of their decisions.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Qatar

Qatar

Qatar’s courts operate under a civil law legal system. Qatar’s legal system is rooted in the Napoleonic Code which was adopted (via the Arab Civil Code) by many countries in the Middle East. Judges are independent of the state and their decisions are taken and implemented in accordance with the law. Hearings in Qatari court proceedings are open to the public unless the court decides of its own accord or at the request of an interested party to hold them in closed session. Case documents, however, are confidential to the litigants. Arabic is the official language in the Qatari courts and all pleadings must be in Arabic (with foreign language documents requiring translation by a court approved translator). While it is extremely rare for witnesses to be required to give evidence in court, the courts will hear evidence given through an interpreter where the evidence of a non-Arabic witness is required.

Qatari civil courts have jurisdiction over civil, commercial, banking, insurance and maritime matters. The civil court system is organized in the following instances:

  • the First Instance Court, which comprises:
    • the Lower Civil Court, which hears and decides on all civil and commercial cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed the sum of QAR100,000 (c. USD27,000); and
    • the Higher Civil Court, which hears and decides cases where the amount in dispute exceeds QAR100,000, and all cases regarding personal status of non-Muslims. It also acts as an appellate court, hearing appeals against judgment issued by the Lower Civil Court;
  • the Court of Appeal, which hears appeals filed against judgments issued by the Higher Civil Court (as well as appeals issued by the Higher Criminal Court and Administrative and Labour Courts); and
  • the Court of Cassation, which is the ultimate court of appeal in Qatar, and hears appeals filed against judgments issued by the Court of Appeal.

In addition, there are a number of specialist tribunals. Judgments issued by these specialist tribunals can be appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Parties doing business in Qatar should also be aware of the Qatar Financial Centre (a business and financial center located in Doha) which, as a part of its business friendly environment, provides an alternative judiciary in the form of the Qatar International Court (QIC). The QIC, which has a bench formed of internationally renowned common law judges, is designed to hear cases quickly and efficiently. Parties with disputes in Qatar should therefore consider making use of this more modern alternative to Qatari court litigation.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Romania

Romania

The Romanian legal system follows a civil law tradition. The courts of law are organized as follows:

  • Courts of first instance (covering the geographic spread of the relevant cities in the country);
  • Tribunals (42 tribunals – one in each county’s capital city);
  • Courts of Appeal (15 courts); and
  • High Court of Justice, the highest court in the judicial system.

A Constitutional Court exists to verify the constitutionality of laws, settle conflicts between public authorities and generally safeguard the Romanian Constitution. The Constitutional Court is not considered part of the judiciary, but rather as a separate and distinct public authority.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Russia

Russia

Russia is a civil law jurisdiction and its judicial system consists of three main court branches:

  • state commercial (Arbitrazh) courts. These courts resolve commercial, civil and administrative disputes between legal entities or entrepreneurs and have exclusive jurisdiction over certain types of disputes (e.g. corporate and bankruptcy matters). For a creditor of a Russian debtor, proceedings in state commercial courts are usually the preferred option (as compared to litigation in foreign courts or arbitration). The process is reasonably straightforward, fast and cost effective;
  • courts of general jurisdiction. These courts adjudicate:
    • civil non-commercial disputes;
    • criminal cases; and
    • administrative cases, which do not arise from commercial activities of companies (e.g. violations of fire safety, labor regulations etc.); and
  • constitutional courts. These courts resolve issues regarding the constitutionality of laws and treaties.

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority for state commercial courts and courts of general jurisdiction.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a civil law jurisdiction that is based on Islamic law, otherwise known as Sharia law. Sharia law, as applied in Saudi Arabia, is not a single codified system of law, nor has it a single code of interpretation in line with Sharia principles. Rather, its laws and principles can vary between the different schools of thought of Islamic law. There are four major schools: Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’I, and Maliki, and Saudi courts and judicial committees generally apply the interpretation of the Hanbali School. The Saudi government, from time to time, issues laws, rules, and regulations with the objective of supplementing Islamic law. In the event of a conflict between Islamic law and government rules and regulations, Islamic law will generally prevail. Sharia law applies in relation to civil and non-codified criminal matters. Other aspects of law, such as commerce, government matters, finance, labour and investment are governed by several statutes and codes.

Saudi Arabia does not have a system of binding judicial precedents, meaning that the courts do not have to follow the earlier decisions of other courts or authorities. Judicial precedents are merely persuasive sources rather than being binding on judges or arbitrations when making their decisions. Therefore, a very broad discretion is given to judges and arbitrators to state, interpret, and apply the principles of Sharia law, rather than considering one single codified law. There is also no comprehensive system of reporting cases in Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi judiciary publishes from time to time "judicial principles" that may operate as authoritative rules to be followed by judges in concluding their judgments.

All proceedings are conducted in Arabic and all non-Arabic documents must be translated.

The court structure in Saudi Arabia is divided into two main branches:

  • first, there is the public judiciary which is supervised by the Supreme Judicial Council. The public judiciary includes: (i) First Instance Courts; (ii) The Court of Appeal; and (iii) the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is not yet fully functional and therefore it is not currently reviewing all types of cases. To date, it is only reviewing commercial cases and serious criminal cases, carrying severe sentences (e.g. death penalty). The First Instance Courts are divided into sub-categories of specialist court which include the General Courts, Commercial Courts, Penal Courts, Labour Courts and Personal Status Courts.
  • secondly, there is the administrative judiciary (Board of Grievances). This includes: (i) First Instance Administrative  Courts; (ii) Courts of Administrative Appeal; and (iii) the Administrative Supreme Court. These courts include Disciplinary Circuits and Administrative Circuits. 

Alongside the two main judicial branches, there is also a semi-judicial branch which examines specific specialized disputes. These consist of various judicial committees within government ministries, such as:

  • the Committees for Resolution of Securities Disputes;
  • the Zakat & Tax Dispute Committee; and 
  • the Banking Disputes Settlement Committee.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Spain

Spain

Spain is a civil law jurisdiction with numerous courts. In broad terms, the civil court system is divided into the following:

  • first instance courts, courts of peace and certain specialized courts (including commercial courts);
  • provincial courts, which hear appeals filed against the judgments of the first instance and commercial courts; and
  • either:
    • High Courts of Justice, which have jurisdiction over appeals filed against the judgments of Provincial Courts on applicable regional civil law (e.g. High Court of Justice of Catalonia hears appeals from the Provincial Courts in Catalonia on matters relating to Catalan civil law); or
    • the First Chamber of the Supreme Court, which hears appeals from the Provincial Courts in cases of national civil law.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Sweden

Sweden

Sweden has a civil law tradition. There are three levels of civil courts in Sweden:

  • District Courts;
  • Courts of Appeal; and
  • the Supreme Court.

Which District Court has jurisdiction to hear a dispute usually depends on the domicile of the defendant, but other criteria may apply depending on the type of dispute (e.g. in real estate disputes and consumer disputes).

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Thailand

Thailand

Unlike other jurisdictions in Southeast Asia, Thailand is a civil law jurisdiction. It has a three-tier court system, being (in order of seniority):

  • the Court of First Instance;
  • the Court of Appeal (including a Court of Appeal for Specialized Cases);
  • the Supreme Court.

There are additional specialist courts, such as:

  • the Administrative Court;
  • the Military Court; and
  • the Constitutional Court.

There is no system of precedent in Thailand, although Supreme Court judgments are often persuasive.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

UK - England & Wales UK - England & Wales

UK - England & Wales

The UK has three distinct legal jurisdictions:

  • England and Wales;
  • Scotland; and
  • Northern Ireland.

Each jurisdiction has its own legal system, distinct history and origins. There is no concept of UK law. 

England and Wales civil system is a common law jurisdiction, where case law (in the form of published judicial decisions) is of primary importance. Although on its face complex, and in some respects arcane, the court system in England and Wales provides an effective, relatively efficient and reliable process for dispute resolution which makes it one of (if not the) most popular jurisdictions in the world. 

Most commercial cases start in the High Court. This is made up of three divisions: Queen’s Bench; Chancery; and Family. The Queen’s Bench division contains a number of specialist courts, namely the Admiralty, Commercial, Circuit Commercial (formerly Mercantile), Technology and Construction, Administrative and Planning Courts and the Queen's Bench Civil Lists. The Chancery Division deals with company law, partnership claims, conveyancing, land law, probate, patent and taxation cases. The Chancery division also includes three specialist courts: the Insolvency and Companies Court; the Patents Court; and the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC). The Financial List is a specialist list set up  to handle claims related to the Financial Markets and operates as a joint initiative  involving the Chancery Division and the Commercial Court, handling claims of £50 million or more which require particular expertise in the financial markets. The Business and Property Courts have also been set up as an umbrella bringing together the work of the Chancery Division and specialist courts of the Queen’s Bench Divisions of the High Court. Judges allocated to a particular division or specialist court typically have specialist expertise in the legal disciplines which those courts deal with.

A number of separate tribunals operate alongside the courts and share their appeal system, such as the Employment Tribunal, which hears employment cases. 

Appeals from the High Court are to the Court of Appeal then UK Supreme Court, which is the ultimate court of appeal in England and Wales (or, exceptionally, directly from the High Court to the Supreme Court).

Case management in civil cases in England and Wales is subject to procedural rules. For the most part, these rules are contained in the Civil Procedure Rules (known as the CPR) and accompanying Practice Directions. A number of the more specialized courts, such as the Commercial Court, also have their own rules and guidelines.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

UK - Scotland

UK - Scotland

The UK, judicially, consists of three jurisdictions:

  • England and Wales;
  • Scotland; and
  • Northern Ireland.

There are important differences between all three jurisdictions. This report exclusively refers to the legal system in Scotland; Scots law.

Scots law is influenced by both civil law and common law, as it has characteristics of both approaches. Scots law recognizes four sources of law: legislation, legal precedent, specific academic writings and custom.

The civil court system in Scotland is split between the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court which sits only in Edinburgh and where the most complex and valuable disputes are heard, and the Sheriff Courts, located in districts throughout Scotland and where lower level claims are determined.

The Court of Session is split into the Outer House (first instance) and Inner House (appeal) courts. A single judge, known as a Lord Ordinary, usually hears cases in the Outer House and a bench of three judges usually hears Inner House appeals. The Sheriff Courts are Scotland’s local courts and are presided over by a single judge called the Sheriff.

Disputes with a total value of over GBP100,000 may be started in either the Court of Session or the Sheriff Court. Disputes with a total value of up to GBP100,000 may only be commenced in the Sheriff Court.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates

The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) are financial free zones in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) established pursuant to Federal Laws of the UAE, specifically pursuant to the UAE Constitution and UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 2004 (Financial Free Zone Law).

The Financial Free Zone Law allows for the creation of independent jurisdictions within the UAE in that financial free zones established under the law are exempted from all civil and commercial laws of the UAE. However, they remain subject to the criminal laws of the Emirate in which they are established and the federal criminal laws of the UAE.

In this regard, the DIFC and ADGM (in relation to civil and commercial matters) each have their own legal and regulatory frameworks. The ADGM’s legal framework is based on English law. The ADGM regulations adopt selected pieces of English legislation, including matters relating to contract, tort and trusts. By contrast, the DIFC has its own body of laws. DIFC law takes precedence, followed by the law of any jurisdiction other than that of the DIFC expressly chosen by the parties followed by a cascade which ultimately ends with English law. That said, in contractual disputes, the DIFC and ADGM courts should apply the chosen law of the parties.

The DIFC and ADGM each also have their own two-tier court system: the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. Furthermore, the DIFC and ADGM courts have their own rules of court procedure. These procedural rules are broadly based on the English Civil Procedure Rules.

The judges of the DIFC courts are a mix of UAE civil trained judges and judges from various common law jurisdictions including England, Australia and Singapore. The judges of the ADGM courts are from common law jurisdictions only.

The DIFC and ADGM, as jurisdictions, are colloquially referred to as being offshore as opposed to the onshore jurisdictions of each of the seven Emirates of the UAE.

It is worth highlighting that the DIFC and ADGM are young jurisdictions that are continuing to develop on a daily basis. Both these jurisdictions were created and operate to provide an alternative forum for dispute resolution in the UAE. In doing so, both the DIFC and ADGM courts have needed to put in place a framework for the interaction of their jurisdiction with the onshore jurisdictions in the Emirates of their establishment and the wider UAE. To this effect, the DIFC and ADGM courts have entered into memoranda of understanding with various courts and jurisdictions, both in the UAE and abroad, which seek to establish processes for the mutual enforcement of judgments and orders.

In this regard, the current legal framework between the DIFC courts and the onshore Dubai courts allows a party to directly enforce a final judgment or order of the DIFC courts onshore in Dubai through the Dubai courts. This has led parties to seek to enforce arbitral awards (both local and foreign) and foreign judgments (including those which have no connection with the DIFC) in the Dubai courts by having them recognized and enforced by the DIFC courts first. This has led to arguments as to whether the DIFC can be used as a conduit jurisdiction for the enforcement of judgments onshore in Dubai in this way.

In addition, a Judicial Committee has recently been formed in Dubai, seemingly as a result of this approach to enforcement. The committee is tasked with resolving conflicts of jurisdiction and judgments between the DIFC and Dubai courts. The committee is formed of three DIFC court judges, three onshore Dubai court judges and is chaired by the head of the Dubai Court of Cassation. The chair has the casting vote in cases of deadlock.

Given that the ADGM and its courts have only been recently established, it remains unclear whether similar issues may arise in relation to the interaction between the ADGM courts and the onshore Abu Dhabi courts. This is because mechanisms similar to those implemented between the DIFC courts and the onshore Dubai courts are being put in place between the ADGM courts and their sister courts in onshore Abu Dhabi.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

United States

United States

The analysis below describes the judicial system and practices in the federal courts of the US as well as most state courts. Variations from the prevailing approach are identified for five notable states (California, Delaware, Illinois, New York and Texas).

The US has a federal system of government, with separate judicial systems operating at the federal and state levels. The federal government and all but one state operate under a common law system. The exception is the state of Louisiana, which is a civil law jurisdiction.

There is at least one federal trial court, called a District Court, in each state. Many states are divided into multiple judicial districts. There are 13 intermediate appellate courts, called Courts of Appeal, most of which are arranged geographically and hear appeals from federal District Courts in their assigned states. There is one federal appellate court with nationwide jurisdiction over certain specialized subject matters, consisting largely of patent and administrative law matters. The US Supreme Court has discretion to hear appeals from the Courts of Appeal and is the final court of appeal for the federal judiciary. It is the final arbiter of issues of federal law and questions of constitutional interpretation.

Each of the 50 states has a similar legal system with trial courts assigned to particular geographic areas (usually at the county level), one or more intermediate appellate courts, and a state supreme court. In most states, the state supreme court has discretion to hear appeals from the intermediate appellate courts. Notably, the state supreme courts (cf. the US Supreme Court) are the final arbiters of the laws of their state absent the existence of a federal issue (for example, alleged unconstitutionality of a state statute). In other words, there are certain limited instances when an issue decided by a state supreme court will be elevated to the US Supreme Court.

Notable state variations

  • Delaware. No intermediate appellate court exists in Delaware, due to its relatively small size. All appeals are heard by the Delaware Supreme Court as a matter of right.

Last modified 19 Jul 2019

Australia’s courts operate under the common law legal system. Australia has a federal system of government, with legislative power divided between the federal branch of government and six state and two territory governments (for ease, we refer collectively to the states and territories as the state or states). Australia’s courts are similarly divided into eight separate state jurisdictions and a federal jurisdiction, which each operate on a parallel but independent hierarchy of courts. State and federal courts broadly have jurisdiction over the application of legislation enacted by the state and federal parliaments respectively. The High Court of Australia is the ultimate court of appeal in Australia for all court systems. There are also tribunals created by specific legislation under state and federal jurisdictions.

In each state or territory of Australia, specific legislation imposes a time period before the end of which proceedings must be commenced for a claim or dispute. 

The specific legislation is: 

  • Limitation Act 1985 (ACT)
  • Limitation Act 1981 (NT)
  • Limitation Act 1969 (NSW)
  • Limitation of Actions Act 1974 (QLD)
  • Limitation of Actions Act 1936 (SA)
  • Limitation Act 1974 (TAS)
  • Limitation of Actions Act 1958 (VIC)
  • Limitation Act 2005 (WA) 

These time periods vary from state to state and depend upon the type of claim. A failure to issue proceedings before the relevant time period expires is likely to result in that claim becoming time barred. 

In most Australian states, actions in simple contract or tort must be brought within six years of either the date of breach (contract) or the date on which loss was incurred (tort). 

The limitation period may be extended in some circumstances, for example where someone with legal incapacity (such as a minor or a person of unsound mind) has entered into a contract. Some jurisdictions also permit for the limitation period to be extended at the court’s discretion.

The process of litigation is broadly similar across Australian courts. Proceedings are initiated by a claim or application, which must be filed in the relevant court and served on all parties to the proceeding. Parties will then exchange pleadings (such as statements of claim, defenses, counterclaims, and replies) which define the parameters of the dispute between the parties and the specific issues which are to be proved by each party. Timeframes for the progression of litigation are found in the civil procedure rules applicable in each jurisdiction. Generally, a defense must be filed within 28 days of service of a statement of claim. 

For proceedings in the Federal Court, parties are required to file a genuine steps statement, which outlines the steps taken to make a sincere and genuine attempt to resolve the dispute prior to commencing litigation. Superior courts in the states may also require a party to litigation to provide details of attempts made to resolve a dispute before proceedings were commenced.  

Once the exchange of pleadings is complete, parties will generally undertake the discovery (also known as the disclosure) process, and then go on to prepare their evidence for a final hearing of the dispute. It is common, particularly in complex litigation, for the parties to be obliged to attend court at regular intervals for directions hearings, in which orders are given to manage the conduct and timeframes of the case up until its final hearing. 

Timeframes for each stage of proceedings vary greatly with the complexity and case management style of an individual matter and the specific jurisdiction in which the case is commenced. Each superior court in the states has in place specific practice notes or directions for the conduct of commercial disputes with the aim of ensuring that those commercial disputes are resolved in the most cost-effective and time-efficient manner possible. Generally, across all jurisdictions, parties will have 28 days from receipt of a claim to put on a defense. As noted above, the timetable from that point of time will depend on the nature of the dispute.  

A straightforward commercial contract dispute will normally, court resources permitting, be resolved within 12 months. 

Most state and federal courts require a corporate entity to be represented by a lawyer (which could include a lawyer employed by a company). Some jurisdictions dealing with small claims / employment issues may allow a company to appear by its director. Individuals may appear on their own behalf in most jurisdictions without a lawyer.

In Australia, the discovery process is designed to allow parties to civil litigation to obtain from an opponent all documents relevant to the issues in dispute. Australian courts strictly prohibit “fishing expeditions” through discovery. Discovery is usually undertaken after the close of pleadings (although in some courts in some states this may not be permitted until after evidence is complete) when the points of dispute between the parties have crystallized. Discovery may however be ordered, in limited circumstances, prior to the commencement of proceedings where an applicant is able to satisfy the court that he or she needs to obtain discovery in order to find out whether or not a cause of action exists against a potential defendant.  

The practice of disclosure varies between those jurisdictions which mandate a general right of discovery and those in which the right is more limited. In the Northern Territory and the states of South Australia and Queensland, parties have a mandatory duty of disclosure which is discharged by the exchange of lists or copies of discoverable documents. In Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, a party may, by written notice to another party, require that party to make general discovery. In the Federal Court of Australia and New South Wales, the right to discovery is limited and requires an order of the court and will usually be limited to specific categories.  

There have been recent attempts by some of the states’ superior courts to more tightly control the disclosure process. For example, the preparation of disclosure plans (which identify the categories of documents to be disclosed and how they will be disclosed), and the courts ordering that discovery being provided after the exchange of written evidence with a view to limiting the number of documents to be exchanged. 

In the Federal Court and most state courts, discovery can be ordered to be made by non-parties to the dispute where the court is satisfied as to the likelihood of the non-party having relevant documents. Courts in Australia will also generally permit the issuing of subpoenas to produce documents to non-parties to litigation and this process will be more straightforward than seeking non-party disclosure orders. 

Default judgment can be applied for in proceedings in any court where a defendant does not:

  • file a defense within the specified timeframe after a statement of claim has been served; or
  • fails to make an appearance at a hearing.

Once a default judgment is ordered against a defendant, a defendant can, in limited circumstances, seek to challenge the granting of judgment by default. The defendant will need to file an application or motion to set aside the default judgment within a specified period of time and show cause for why (usually lack of notice of the claim or that notice was given of intent to defend but that notice was not brought to the attention of the court which granted the default judgment) the judgment should be set aside.

Judgments of civil courts in Australia can be appealed to a superior court. Civil procedure legislation in each jurisdiction sets out the rules and procedure for appeals. Ordinarily, it will be necessary to seek leave from the superior court to appeal. The Court of Appeal in each state, and the Full Federal Court, are the ultimate courts of appeal for each of those jurisdictions. Cases that emanate from the Federal Circuit Court are appealable to the Federal Court and then the Full Federal Court, whereas matters emanating from a State Magistrates Court are appealable to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Decisions made by the District Court (County Court in certain states) are appealable to the Supreme Court and decisions of the Supreme Court can be appealed to the state’s Court of Appeal. The High Court of Australia hears appeals from courts of appeal (sometimes referred to as the full court) in all jurisdictions, and has limited original jurisdiction (which predominantly relates to constitutional matters). 

Parties generally, depending on the jurisdiction, have 28 days from the date of judgment or final order, to lodge an appeal in a civil matter to the relevant appeal court. Appeals will generally, because of the limitation of introducing new evidence in most civil appeals, be resolved more quickly than matters at first instance. Most appeals of civil matters will be heard and judgment given within six to eight months from commencement of the appeal. 

All superior Australian courts have a wide power and discretion to grant both interlocutory orders and interlocutory injunctions. An interlocutory application, generally speaking, is an application which seeks any order other than a final judgment. 

As in other jurisdictions, interlocutory injunctions are a species of interlocutory orders. Where those orders are sought on an urgent and temporary basis until a more extended form of relief is sought, they are often referred to as interim orders. 

Interlocutory orders (including interlocutory injunctions) can require a party to undertake or refrain from a particular act, and can be granted before proceedings have commenced, once they are on foot and after judgment has been entered. Applications for these types of orders may be made by self-represented litigants or through legal representation. 

The categories of non-urgent interlocutory orders that an applicant may seek are many and varied and include, by way of example, applications for security for costs, discovery (including preliminary discovery before proceedings have been commenced), the filing of expert evidence or orders for particulars, The evidence required to obtain non-urgent interlocutory orders will turn on the type of orders sought, although at the very least substantive interlocutory applications usually require a sworn affidavit to be filed. 

The kinds of relief that can be sought by way of an urgent interlocutory injunction are equally varied. This is because the orders have the purpose of preserving the status quo until the rights of the parties can be determined finally, and the types of matters that can be heard by the court are vast. Common urgent interlocutory injunctions include applications for the preservation of property, the freezing of assets and applications to search premises to preserve evidence.

An applicant for an interlocutory injunction (either urgent or not) must prove that: 

  • there is a serious question of law to be tried;
  • the balance of convenience favors the granting of the injunction; and
  • an award of damages (at the conclusion of the proceeding) would not be an adequate remedy. 

It is possible for urgent interlocutory injunction applications to be heard by the court ex parte, without the opposing party’s involvement. Any orders given ex parte will generally operate only for a limited period of time until the matter can be brought to a hearing. The duration of any ex parte order will ordinarily be limited to a period terminating on the return date of the summons, which should be as early as practicable (usually not more than a day or two) after the order was made, when the respondent will have the opportunity to be heard. For this reason appeals of ex parte interlocutory injunctions are not usually made to a superior court. The applicant will then bear the onus of satisfying the court that the order should be continued or renewed. A party seeking an interlocutory injunction will ordinarily be obliged to give an undertaking to pay any damages by the defendant suffered as a result of the injunction in the event that the claim for final relief at trial fails. 

The decision to grant an interlocutory injunction can be appealed on an urgent basis to a relevant appeal court. The appeal court will usually list the matter before a single judge to assess the urgency (often the same or the day following the day on which the appeal is lodged) and set a timetable based on the information provided at that first listing. 

Australian state and federal courts can grant interim freezing orders, which restrain a defendant from disposing of property prior to judgment. These orders are a species of interlocutory orders. Such applications may be filed at the Supreme Court or Federal Court. A freezing order is normally obtained ex parte without notice to the respondent, before service of the originating process, because notice or service may prompt the feared dissipation or dealing with assets. A freezing order or an ancillary order may be limited to assets in Australia or in a defined part of Australia, or may extend to assets anywhere in the world, and may cover all assets without limitation, assets of a particular class, or specific assets. It would therefore be possible for a freezing order to encompass bank accounts as well as assets such as real property, art, securities or motor vehicles. Such orders would, however, normally allow for access to funds for reasonable expenses, living costs and payments in the ordinary course of a defendant or third party’s business. A court may also order a freezing order against a third party, where it can be established that there is a risk that a judgment or prospective judgment may be unsatisfied as a result of a third party’s power, possession or influence over the assets in question. The power to issue a freezing order is a function of courts’ authority to prevent an abuse of the court process by the frustration of court-ordered remedies. A freezing order will be made only to preserve the status quo for the purpose of resolving a substantive cause of action brought by the plaintiff, and not as a stand-alone remedy.

The criteria for the issue of a freezing order is similar to the ordinary principles for the grant of interim relief, as discussed above, although the potentially serious impact on a defendant’s property rights raises the threshold for the granting of a freezing order. This may be overcome by an undertaking as to damages given by the applicant of the freezing order, where the applicant undertakes to submit to such order (if any) as the court may consider to be just for the payment of compensation (to be assessed by the court or as it may direct) to any person affected by the operation of the order. The High Court of Australia described freezing orders as 'a drastic remedy which should not be granted lightly.' Broadly and generally, an applicant must show that: 

  • the applicant has a good arguable case (in the substantive cause of action);
  • the refusal of a freezing order will give rise to a real risk that any judgment pronounced in the action will remain unsatisfied, or that the recovery of any judgment will be prejudiced by reason of the removal by the defendant of assets from the jurisdiction, or their dissipation within it; and
  • the balance of convenience favors the making of the order.

Australian courts have wide discretion to award costs orders against either party to cover the opposing party’s costs of litigation. The general rule is that costs follow the event. This means that the unsuccessful party will be liable to pay the litigation costs of the successful party. The aim of this rule is to achieve a just outcome by shifting the costs burden on to the party which is found to have either unjustifiably brought another party before the court or given another party cause to have recourse to the court to obtain their rights. 

Where each litigant has enjoyed some success in the proceedings, courts may modify the general rule to make costs orders that reflect the litigants’ relative success and failure. Courts may depart from the general rule by requiring a successful party to bear their own costs where there is good cause to do so. Such an outcome may be justified where, for example, a successful plaintiff is awarded only nominal damages, or a party succeeds only due to late and substantial amendments to their case. 

Of particular strategic importance is the rule that generally a court will not award costs to a successful party which has obtained relief no more favorable than had already been offered by his or her opponent in settlement discussions. This rule is designed to encourage the early resolution of litigated disputes. 

Costs orders are subject to a costs assessment process administered by the courts. It is unusual that a party will be able to recover all of its actual legal costs through this process. On a standard assessment, parties may recover approximately 60% to 75% of their actual costs. A higher rate of assessment, on an indemnity basis, may be employed where a party has engaged in unreasonable conduct in the proceeding. 

All courts in Australia will charge fees for commencing civil proceedings (often referred to as a filing fee). Some jurisdictions, particularly superior courts, will also charge additional fees including but not limited to daily hearing fees (calculated by reference to the length of the trial), filing fees for notices of motions/applications and the issuing of subpoenas to third parties. These fees are set by the courts and are published on their websites. They are usually reviewed on a yearly basis. By way of example, the current (2019) rate for commencing proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia is AUD4,045 for corporations and the hearing fee for a five-day trial is AUD19,730 for corporations.

In all Australian jurisdictions, a representative proceeding, or class action (as it is more commonly known in Australia) may be commenced by or against any one person as a representative of numerous persons (the minimum number required is generally seven people) who have the same interest in the proceeding and the claims brought give rise to a substantial common issue of law or fact. It is possible to commence a class action against multiple defendants and there is no requirement for every group member to have a claim against every defendant.  

An overarching consideration of the courts in hearing a representative proceeding is whether it involves less delay, expense, and prejudice to the parties than alternative forms of trial. If not, the court may discontinue the proceedings. 

The Federal, New South Wales, Victorian and, most recently, Queensland jurisdictions contain further statutory provisions in relation to representative proceedings, which are arguably more liberal and plaintiff-friendly than other jurisdictions. These jurisdictions allow representative proceedings to be brought where seven or more people have claims which arise out of the same or related circumstances and give rise to a substantial common issue of fact or law. Over 90% of all class actions filed in Australia from 1992-2009 were filed in the Federal Court of Australia. 

When a representative proceeding is commenced, all potential plaintiffs who fall within a class become members of the class, whether they are aware of the claim or not. Members can then opt out of the proceedings before a date set by the court. All class members who do not opt out will be bound by the judgment of the court or by any approved settlement. 

It is important to note that, although some states have yet to formally abolish the law of champerty and maintenance, outside of the US, Australia has one of the most developed class action industries, with a variety of large, class action plaintiff law firms and with many litigation funders having been active in the jurisdiction for over 20 years. This active funding industry has seen a continued increase in the number of class actions being commenced in Australia. 

Cameron Maclean

Cameron Maclean

Partner
DLA Piper Australia
[email protected]
T +61 8 6467 6013
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