Judges and greffiers work and make decisions in the courts. Further officials and employees support them in their role as decision-making organs. Judges are independent, which finds its expression in the freedom of judges from complying with any instructions, as well as in their freedom from dismissal or transfer to another position. This ensures their independence from political, economical, religious, or ideological influences, making them only bound to a democratically concluded legal order. Another important factor in a just ruling is a fair proceeding in the sense of the European Convention on Human Rights, which allows for all points of view to be presented, heard, and evaluated.
Regular courts are organised on four levels. At present, 116 district courts, 20 regional courts, four higher regional courts of appeal and the Supreme Court are responsible for adjudicating legal cases.
District courts are the first instance to decide civil law cases with a maximum amount in dispute of 15,000 euros, as well as to rule on certain types of cases (irrespective of the amount in dispute, mainly family and rent law cases). In addition, the district courts rule on criminal law matters in case of minor offences carrying merely a fine or a maximum prison term of one year (e.g. physical injury by negligence, theft).
Regional courts (courts of first-instance) are responsible for first-instance rulings on all legal matters not assigned to district courts. In addition, they are responsible to rule on appeals against district court decisions as second-instance courts.
Four higher regional courts of appeal (courts of second instance) have been set up as a third organisational level. They are located in Vienna (covering Vienna, Lower Austria, and Burgenland), Graz (covering Styria and Carinthia), Linz (covering Upper Austria and Salzburg), as well as Innsbruck (covering Tyrol and Vorarlberg). These courts of second instance are appellate courts for all civil and criminal law cases. In addition, these courts play a specific role in the administration of the judicial system: presidents of higher regional courts are heads of administration for all courts in their jurisdiction. In this function, their only and immediate superior is the Federal Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Reforms, Deregulation and Justice.
The Supreme Court in Vienna is the highest instance in civil and criminal law cases. Together with the Constitutional Court and the Administrative Court it is referred to as the “Highest Court“. This means that no further (domestic) remedy is possible against its decisions. The case law of the Supreme Court is a major contributor towards preserving the uniform application of the law throughout the national territory. Although lower courts are not legally bound by its decisions, as a rule they will be guided by the case law of the Highest Court.