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Australian Law

Get to know a bit about the law in Australia before you arrive to avoid tricky situations.

Australia follows a federal government system. This means that powers are distributed between the Federal government (the Commonwealth) and State and Territory governments. There are six States—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia— and two Territories—Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

There are three levels of government:

  • Federal
  • State or Territory
  • Local.

Each of these levels make the laws depending on what area of law it is. Most day-to-day criminal laws are State and Territory laws, whilst local government laws include traffic and parking offences.

The Police service is the main law enforcement agency. Each State has its own police service and there is also the Australian Federal Police, which enforces Federal laws such as customs and immigration.

People in Australia accused of a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty. If the police require you to go to court they must prove that you committed the offence. The criminal justice system and the law courts deal with punishment for crimes. The seriousness of the punishment reflects the seriousness of the crime and can range from imprisonment to a fine.

Though the criminal justice system is similar across Australia, each state has its own system. There are three stages of the process: the investigative process (investigation by police); the adjudicative process (the case appears before the courts and a penalty is imposed); and the penal/ correctional stage (the punishment is served).

  • Courts

    Courts hear both civil and criminal cases. A criminal case occurs when police or other authorities lay a charge when there is an allegation of violation of criminal law. A civil case is a dispute between two or more people or organisations where one side is seeking legal resolution for loss or injury from the alleged party.

    Courts System
      Highest Court  
      High Court of Australia  
      Federal Court of Australia  
      State and Territorial Supreme Courts  
  • Legal Aid

    Every person has the right to request legal representation during any legal proceedings. Legal aid is a legal service available to those who can’t afford their own legal advisor.

    Legal aid services can help to pay for the costs involved in court appearances, police investigations and offer general advice. Legal aid is not automatic and eligibility depends upon several factors. The Legal Services Commission of South Australia can advise you about this.

    Legal Aid services

    General legal advice and referral
    Freecall 1300 366 424 Mon – Fri, 9.00 am–4.30 pm

    Deaf and Hearing Impaired
    TTY 8463 3691

    Child Support Help Line
    T: 8111 5576

    Duty Solicitors
    T: 8111 5470

    Youth Legal Services (for under 18s)
    T: 8111 5310

    Translating and Interpreting Service
    T: 131 450

    The Legal Services Commission of South Australia

    The Commission offers general advice and referral, counselling for debt and other problems, child mediation for matters concerning children, and publishes several information booklets. These include The Law Handbook which is also available online.

    Other titles can be found online.

    The Legal Services Commission can also arrange and pay for an interpreter if necessary.

    The Central Community Legal Service

    The Central Community Legal Service provides free legal information, advice, referral and assistance at the Adelaide University Union to University of Adelaide students. Help will be provided for family law, traffic offences, consumer complaints, tenancy, debt and minor criminal issues. Advice is available on Tuesdays by appointment only, call 8342 1800.

    The central Adelaide office is located at Shop 2, 59 Main North Road, Medindie Gardens, SA 5083.

  • The Police

    Most police officers wear a uniform, which may differ from state to state. Some police officers do not wear a uniform at all and these are called ‘plain clothes’ officers. However, all Police carry a badge and identification whilst on duty. If you are unsure about whether someone is a police officer you can ask to see their identification. The police are a public service and are not part of the army.

    Police vehicles are generally white with a blue and white check pattern along the side and ‘POLICE’ written on the vehicle. There are also unidentified vehicles that carry a portable ‘POLICE’ sign and flashing blue light. If a police vehicle (or any other emergency vehicle such as an ambulance) has its lights flashing and siren sounding in traffic, you must give way to them.

    Police have the power to:

    • arrest
    • detain
    • search for and collect information
    • charge a person if they have reasonable cause to suspect them of committing or intending to commit an offence.

    Police also have a range of powers to enter premises and conduct searches. There are rules governing police conduct and what they do and they are held accountable to their state or territory authority.

    An interpreting service is available if requested and there is a telephone interpreter service (TIS) available on 131 450.

    There are several ways in which you can report a crime:

    • Visit the nearest police station.
    • Telephone the nearest police station call 131 444 to be connected.
    • Telephone Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000. This is a free call service to a community organisation. The call can be anonymous and an interpreter service is available. Lines are open 24 hours a day/7 days a week.
    • Telephone 000—this 24-hour service must ONLY be used in an emergency or to report a crime in progress. You will be asked which emergency service you require: ask for the Police. An interpreter service is available. You will need to give your name, address and telephone number and say what is happening and where.

    If you are questioned by the Police:

    • be friendly
    • remain calm
    • be cooperative.

    It is illegal to give false information or to try to bribe the police with gifts or money. You have the right to seek legal advice and ask for an interpreter. You do not have to accompany the Police unless they arrest you. If they do, they must make this clear. They do not have the right to threaten or injure you but if you resist the arrest, they have the right to use ‘reasonable force’ to make you go with them. In this situation, you will be taken into custody, charged with the crime and a formal complaint will be made against you. You have the right to know the details of the charge, to ask for bail and to make one phone call. You are only obliged to give them your name and address until your legal advisor is present if you so choose.

    Further information regarding the role of Police in South Australia can be found on the SA Police website.

  • What is a crime?

    Crime is generally described as conduct that is prohibited by law and may result in punishment. They are commonly classified as ‘indictable’ and ‘non-indictable’.

    Indictable crimes

    These are serious crimes, which are tried in the higher courts and may require a jury to decide the outcome. These include robbery, homicide, serious sexual and non- sexual assault, fraud and serious theft.

    Non-indictable crimes

    These are usually less serious and carry lesser penalties. These include shoplifting and traffic violations and are tried in a Magistrate’s Court.


    Consumption and purchase of alcohol is illegal (not legal) for people under the age of 18. In South Australia it is illegal to exceed the blood alcohol limit (which is 0.05g/100mL) when driving a car or any other vehicle on a full licence. It is illegal to have any alcohol present in your blood if you are driving on Probationary (P plate) or a Learners (L plate) permit.

    It is also an offence to consume alcohol in many public places, including the Adelaide CBD, which is a ‘dry zone’.


    Bribery is the offering, giving or receiving of something of value in exchange for gaining undue influence in a decision making process.

    In Australia it is illegal to offer, pay or accept a bribe for services or during negotiation. A clear example of bribery would be offering a police officer money to disregard a traffic infringement that you have committed whilst operating a motor vehicle. Another example would be offering money, goods or services to a University staff member such as a tutor or academic in return for academic grades.

    One further example of particular relevance to students would be to offer payment to or accept payment from another student in return for academic work.


    Some drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco, medicines and caffeine are legal in Australia. However, there are some drugs that can only be used legally when a doctor has prescribed them for that person. These are known as restricted substances and are supplied by chemists (pharmacies).

    Possession of some of these substances by someone they were not prescribed for is illegal. It is illegal to use the following drugs in any circumstances: cannabis, heroin, amphetamines (e.g. speed and LSD), cocaine (including crack) and ‘designer drugs’ (such as ecstasy and ice). The possession, use, importation, distribution manufacturing or trafficking of a wide range of drugs (including those named in this paragraph) is illegal in all Australian states and territories.

    If you suspect someone has overdosed on a drug, telephone 000 IMMEDIATELY and ask for an ambulance, stay on the line until the ambulance arrives and provide the operator with as much information about the location and events as possible. This should provide the best outcome for the person you are calling about.


    Gambling at official gambling agencies is legal if you are over 18 years of age. However, it is illegal to gamble outside these agencies. But remember, you are far more likely to lose than to win and you could find yourself in serious financial difficulties. This in turn, could have negative implications for your academic studies and visa situation.


    In some council areas it may be against the law to use a lawnmower or electric power tool before 8.00 am Monday to Friday and before 9.00 am Saturday and Sunday. Check with you local council office or ask a neighbour.

    If you play music loud enough to disturb your neighbours they can call the police no matter what the time. It is appreciated and polite to let your neighbours know if you are planning to have a party at which you will be playing loud music.


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