What is the jurisdictional limit of the District Court of NSW?

When acting for an injured plaintiff in common law proceedings, we must give consideration to which Court proceedings are to be filed in – a decision between the District Court or the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

A relevant factor to contemplate is the potential outcome of the proceedings and the monetary amount of damages that may be awarded.

A Court’s jurisdiction is the extent of the power they have to make legal decision and judgement. The District Court of New South Wales can determine matters up to a particular monetary limit and this limit often varies according to the nature of the proceedings.

For claims involving common law actions, the jurisdiction of the District Court is $750,000.00: s 4(1) of the District Court Act 1973 (the “DCA”).

In other words, the District Court is unable to and does not have the power to deal with matters whereby the Award or damages is in excess of $750,000.00. If the award of damages is likely to be greater than $750,000.00, proceedings will be filed in the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

There are however some circumstances whereby a defendant can provide their consent to the District Court having unlimited jurisdiction. A plaintiff can seek the defendants consent to the District Court hearing the matter irrespective of the monetary outcome. This is usually made known at the commencement of a hearing by the filling of a memorandum consenting to unlimited jurisdiction: s 51(2)(a) of the DCA.

In some circumstances the extension is limited to an additional 50 per cent above the jurisdictional limit: s 51 (2)(b) of the DCA. Therefore the limit can increase from $750,000.00 to a maximum of $1,125,000.00.

Having a matter dealt with in the District Court can often be more efficient for a plaintiff in that the litigation tends to progress at a greater momentum and costs are often much less than proceedings filed in the District Court.

Indeed, this concept was ruminated by Her Honour Justice Monika Schmidt in the recent case of Nightingale v Mt Arthur Coal Pty Ltd [2019] NSWSC 434. In her recent decision, Justice Schmidt stated: "Keeping the matter in the District Court would certainly be quicker and cheaper".

The case involved an injured contract truck driver who was employed to work in an open cut coal mine. He suffered spine and neck injuries, and subsequent psychological injuries, as a result of a workplace incident.  

The plaintiff filed proceedings in the District Court at first instance and sought the mining company’s consent to allow the District Court to hear the matter on the basis that both parties agreed to raise the jurisdictional limit beyond $750,000.00.

The defendant refused.

The defendant rigorously disputes the claim. The mining company challenges the evidence on injury and also the plaintiff’s capacity to work which would preclude him for claiming substantial damages for future economic loss. The defendant therefore submitted that they could not conclude that the limit would be exceeded.

The plaintiff was therefore required to make an application to transfer the proceedings to the Supreme Court and this application was ultimately granted.

In her judgement, Justice Schmidt was required to consider the potential value of the damages in the case and whether those damages were likely to exceed the jurisdictional limit of the District Court. She expressed a view that if the plaintiff is successful, his damages may exceed $1.2 million.

The plaintiff’s claim will not proceed to listed for hearing in the Supreme Court.