From the time that an alleged offence was committed, right up to the time it is finalised in court, considerable time may have passed.
This may be months or even years in the lengthier cases.
The different stages that a case goes through from start to finish is poorly understood and somewhat complex.
Each case will be different, depending on whether you choose to plead guilty or not guilty as well as the nature and severity of the alleged offence.
A small offence heard in the Local Court where you wish to plead guilty may be dealt with in a matter of hours and cost nothing more than the standard court fee of around $90.
On the other end of the scale, the terrorism trial of five Sydney men back in 2009 was one of the longest, and at nine million dollars, one of the most expensive court cases in Australia.
While there is no real ‘average’ court case, there is a general pattern of stages that proceedings will follow.
1. Court attendance notice
Sometimes your Court Attendance Notice (CAN) will arrive in your mailbox as an unpleasant surprise weeks or even months after the alleged offence took place. You may have even almost forgotten about the incident. This is called a ‘Future CAN’.
Your CAN will give you details of the charge or charges against you as well as the date, time and court that you are expected to appear before a magistrate.
The process may also start with arrest – you may have been charged formally at a police station, given a CAN and released from the police station on bail.
If you are refused police bail, the police will be required to take you to a court as soon as practicable where the magistrate will decide whether or not to grant you bail
This is the first time you will appear in court and will typically be in the Local Court, no matter how serious the alleged offence is.
It is very important that either you or you lawyer attends on this day, because if not, the case could be decided in your absence.
If you are on bail, you will be required to attend court even if a lawyer is also attending for you.
At the mention you can plead guilty, not guilty or ask for an adjournment to seek legal advice.
If you plead guilty and the charge is relatively minor, the magistrate will normally move to sentencing and impose a penalty that very day.
If you plead guilty to a more serious case, the magistrate may order that you obtain a ‘pre-sentence report’ (PSR) from community corrections (formerly called the ‘probation and parole service’).
A PSR will outline the options available to the magistrate other than full-time imprisonment. For example, it may find you eligible for a supervised good behaviour bond or community service order.
If a community corrections officer is at the courthouse that day, you may be able to get a ‘duty PSR’ and have your case finalised on the day.
If the magistrate orders a ‘full PSR’, your case will normally be adjourned for 6 to 8 weeks to enable community corrections to prepare a detailed report.
If your case is very serious, it may need to be ‘committed’ (sent) to a higher court such as the District Court for sentencing.
If you plead not guilty at your mention, your case will normally be adjourned for another mention in 6 weeks to enable police to serve all of their statements and other evidence against you.
Once the materials are served, the case will proceed to a ‘Defended Local Court Hearing’.
If you plead ‘not guilty’ to a serious charge, it will ultimately reach a ‘committal hearing’.
3. Committal Hearing
As stated, committal hearings are Local Court proceedings for more serious cases.
They are basically where the prosecution must prove that they have a good chance at convicting the person if the case goes to a District or Supreme Court jury trial.
At committal, the magistrate will determine whether or not the case should go to trial at all.
If they decide there is not a reasonable possibility that a properly instructed, reasonable jury would convict, the magistrate must order the discharge of the defendant.
4. Defended Hearing or Jury Trial
A defended hearing occurs in the Local Court.
This is where witnesses attend court to speak on the witness stand and the magistrate decides whether you are guilty or not guilty.
A trial takes place in the District or Supreme Court and normally involves a 12-member jury.
In either case, if you plead not guilty the prosecution will have to prove all of the elements of the offence beyond reasonable doubt.
Defended hearings and jury trials are the most time-consuming part of the court process.
Defendants who plead guilty usually get a reduction in sentence because of the considerable time, resources and costs that are saved if the prosecution doesn’t have to prove guilt.
If you are found not guilty, the charges against you will be dismissed and you will be free to get on with your life.
This is called an ‘acquittal’.
You may in certain circumstances be able to make an application for legal costs once you are acquitted.
If you plead guilty or are found guilty, the magistrate or judge will hand down a sentence in proportion to the severity of the crime and all surrounding circumstances.
Sentencing may occur immediately after the verdict is given, or it may be handed down at a later date.
As stated, the court may order a pre-sentence report which can take time to prepare.
You have the right to appeal anytime within 28 days of the finalisation of your case if you are unhappy with either the verdict or the sentence.
The prosecution also has this right.
As you can see, going to court can be a lengthy process.
If at any stage in the proceedings of your criminal matter you are unsure of how best to continue, you should consider speaking with a lawyer.
Even a quick, and usually free, one hour first consultation will give you a little bit of an idea about how an experienced criminal lawyer may be able to help you.