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Criminal law vs civil law

Oscar Pistorius initially appeared in a local magistrate’s court, his bail hearing was in the regional court and his murder trial in the High Court.

As we have had quite a few queries over the last week about aspects of Criminal Law; we have decided to do a few blogs on various aspects of Criminal Law.

Firstly; it is important to understand that there are two large bodies of our law.

  1. Criminal Law and
  2. Civil Law.

Broadly speaking a criminal case is one where the accused is charged by the State in respect of a crime and Civil Law is the law as it is applied to different people and legal entities. To use an example for illustration: A is charged with Drunk Driving. The case is “The State (the Government, in fact, on behalf of the people of the country) versus A. “This is a criminal case and is heard in one of the criminal courts in the country.

There are various criminal courts.

Starting at the bottom of the rung/ladder: The lowest criminal courts: “The Lower Courts” is the correct terminology:


  1. There are municipal courts, for criminal case in municipalities; usually minor offences like traffic offences, or dogs that are a nuisance, or walking on the beach without a leash, or the enforcement of municipal ordinances and by-laws eg building regulations that have been breached. These courts usually apply fines and warnings to the accused if he/she is found guilty and are often run alongside district courts and usually in the same building or court. They also have Magistrates and Municipal Prosecutors.
  2. Then there are district courts which are usually your criminal courts in the ordinary Magistrates Courts that we all know for the various Magistrates Districts throughout the Country eg Wynberg Magistrates Court or Cape Town Magistrates Court or Pretoria Magistrate’s Court or Randburg Magistrates Court or Durban Magistrates Court etc.

They deal with more serious criminal cases like drunken driving, theft, and most serious traffic offences, reckless and negligent driving etc and also other common law crimes. They have District Magistrates and District Prosecutors.


These are the true lower courts although the Regional Court which is the next one up is also strictly speaking still “Lower Courts.” It is only the “High Courts: that are true High Courts.

One up from the district courts is the Regional Courts.

These courts are sometimes found at the local magistrate’s court as well or sometimes entirely on their own.

They are staffed by regional court staff and prosecutors; some of whom may well be State Advocates; especially in the case of the Regional Courts dealing with crimes such as murder, rape and robbery and also in the specialised commercial crime courts which deal with complicated commercial crimes such as commercial fraud, theft and also corruption. The regional courts dealing with women and child abuse also have specially trained prosecutors as do the other specialised crimes courts dealing with gangs, sexual offences and organised crime.


In addition to their purely criminal function, some of the Regional Courts also have civil jurisdiction to lighten the load on the High Courts. The jurisdiction in the amount in the Regional Court is R 300000.00 as compared to the district court’s R 100000.00 ceiling. Regional Courts or some of them at least also deal with Divorce matters for the same reason given above so as to lighten the burden of the High Courts.

The High Courts are situated in the main cities and there are also circuit courts attached to them which run from time to time in the country areas usually in the same building as a Regional or District Court in that town. So you have for example the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria and the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.

These courts deal with all matters both civil and criminal and all your high profile or important case are referred from the district and regional courts to the High Court having jurisdiction in that area.

They also deal with both civil and criminal appeals from the district and regional courts.

For example in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial; after Oscar was arrested he initially appeared in the local magistrate’s court. His bail hearing was heard in the regional court and his murder trial which gets underway in August 2013 and was heard in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg because it is a high profile and important public interest case.

Appeals from criminal matters in the various High Courts are heard in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein; and from there a final appeal lies to the Constitutional Court but only when there is a Constitutional Issue at stake and otherwise the final appeal court is the Supreme Court of Appeal and if you lose there that is it.

We trust that this explains a little about our criminal courts and their various areas of jurisdiction.

Please also visit our website at or send us an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with your legal questions.

About our author:

Hugh Pollard (Legal Consultant), has a BA LLB and 42 years’ experience in the legal field. 22 years as a practicing attorney and conveyancer; and 20 years as a Legal Consultant.

082-0932304 (Hugh’s Cell Number)

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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