Compared with the eastern States, South Australia was fairly late in establishing its District Court. Victoria, for example, had formed its Country Court as early as 1852, while New South Wales and Queensland formed their District Courts in 1858 and 1865 respectively. It was not until a little over a century later that South Australia had its own equivalent.

Though first established in 1969, the District Court was not constituted by a separate Act of Parliament until the enactment of the District Court Act in 1991. Prior to that time, the District Court functioned under provisions of the Local and District Criminal Courts Act 1969. This Act created and introduced into the pre-existing Local Court structure District Criminal Courts presided over by District Court Judges. They were conferred power to hear and determine many of the indictable offences that previously could only be tried by the Supreme Court. At the same time, these judges were empowered to sit as Judges of Local Courts of Full Jurisdiction to hear and determine civil actions for amounts up to $8,000 or $10,000 in actions involving the use of a vehicle. Both the newly formed District Criminal Courts and the Local Courts of Full Jurisdiction came into operation in August 1970 and almost immediately helped to alleviate the workload of the Supreme Court and reduce its ever-increasing build-up of cases.

In 1981, by the Statutes Amendment (Administration of Courts and Tribunals) Act 1981 No. 34, District Criminal Courts and Local Courts of Full Jurisdiction were designated as District Courts. Thus, no longer were there separate Local Courts sitting in their Full Jurisdiction and District Criminal Courts, but just one District Court exercising the same powers. The principal motive behind this was to bring the South Australian court system more into line with the way courts were organised in most of the other Australian States and also to enhance the status of the District Court. Unfortunately, the legislation did not completely achieve this object and the District Court, despite being unified, still did not have a separate Act of Parliament of its own. That was to change in 1991.

More than anything, the District Court Act 1991 represented a complete break with the past for the court was, at last, a separate court in its own right with its own constitution, procedures and rules. The Act substantially enlarged the jurisdiction of the District Court both in criminal and civil matters with the result that it has now become the principal trial court in the State. In its criminal jurisdiction, the District Court now has power to try any criminal charge except murder or treason or attempt or conspiracy to commit either of those offences. Its civil jurisdiction is no longer defined in monetary terms and the Court has the same civil jurisdiction as the Supreme Court at first instance with the exception of matters of probate or admiralty. In addition, under the 1991 Act the District Court has exclusive jurisdiction in criminal injuries compensation claims, and is further empowered to deal with a wide range of appeals against administrative decision and appeals from bodies such as the Guardianship Board and Medical Professional Conduct Tribunal.

Thus, within a span of just three decades, the District Court of South Australia has come of age. From being somewhat hastily grafted onto an already existing legislation and given very limited powers, it is now constituted by its own Act and entrusted with the bulk of trial work.