Criminal Proceedings in the Magistrates' Court of Victoria
Criminal proceedings in the Magistrates' Court of Victoria can seem daunting and confusing from the outside looking in, but understanding your rights and what happens in court can help ensure that you have the best possible outcome for your case. A previous article discussed role of criminal defence lawyers in Melbourne. This article provides a discussion about criminal proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court.
Criminal Courts in Victoria
Most criminal cases are heard and finalized in the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. The judicial officer that hears criminal cases in this court is a Magistrate.
The Magistrates’ Court is a Court of summary jurisdiction, that is to say that all summary offences can be heard in the Magistrates’ Court. Criminal offences broadly speaking fall into two categories: summary offences (less serious penalties), and indictable offences (more serious maximum penalties). Careless driving is an example of a summary offence whereas burglary is an example of an indictable offence.
The Magistrates’ Court sits at the bottom of the court hierarchy in our criminal justice system. The County and Supreme Courts hear more serious charges (including allegations of rape, assaults resulting in serious injury, large scale fraud, commercial drug trafficking, murder, manslaughter). Victoria also has a specialist Childrens Court. The Childrens Court has a family and criminal division.
Types of Criminal Offences Heard in the Magistrates' Court
The criminal jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria hears both summary and indictable offences. If an accused intends to plead guilty to an indictable offence in the Magistrates’ Court, they must consent to the Magistrate dealing with the offence. Not all indictable charges can be heard in the Magistrates’ Court. Schedule 2 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) sets out the indictable offences that are capable of being heard in the Magistrates’ Court. Where the Magistrate Court does not have jurisdiction to hear an offence it will be determined in either the County or Supreme Court depending upon the seriousness of the offending (for example murder, manslaughter and large commercial drug trafficking are offences heard and determined in the Supreme Court of Victoria).
The Stages of Criminal Proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court
The mention represents the very first listing of a case in the Magistrates’ Court At a mention, several things may happen:
an accused may require an adjournment without conducting a case conference.
an accused may require an adjournment after a case conference
an accused may elect to finalise their case by pleading guilty (refer to our page on sentencing)
The purpose of a case conference is to facilitate a meeting between the lawyer representing an accused person (or the accused themselves) and the police so that issues pertaining to the case can be discussed in full, and potentially resolved.
Prior to the mention, the police are required to disclose their case to an accused, and this is done by providing a preliminary brief of evidence. Often at a case conference, a further request for a full brief of evidence will be requested of the prosecution. The Court will usually grant an adjournment for this case and thereafter the case will be listed for either a further case conference or contest mention.
The period between a mention and contest mention can be up to 8 weeks. Where the allegations concern family violence, a contest mention is usually listed within 4 weeks.
At a contest mention, further discussions occur between prosecution and defence.
The Magistrate will be informed about details of the prosecution case, and a summary of the evidence relied upon by the prosecution. The facts in dispute, and any contentious legal issues will be identified by the parties.
Often a Magistrate will encourage the parties to reach a resolution and may offer a sentence indication to facilitate this.
The resolution of a criminal case at the contest mention stage is common. A case may resolve by an accused pleading guilty to downgraded offences, by the accused accepting a sentence indication, or the prosecution may withdraw all charges.
Where an accused indicates an intention to plead not guilty the Court will adjourn an unresolved case for a contested hearing, usually several months from the date of the contest mention.
At a contested hearing, the prosecution must produce evidence that ultimately persuades a Magistrate of the guilt of an accused beyond reasonable doubt.
To establish their case the prosecution will adduce evidence (through witnesses and exhibits). The defence can test this evidence through cross-examination (asking questions from police witnesses). An accused also can call evidence (through witnesses and exhibits) and to give their own testimony in defending the charge(s).
Once both prosecution and defence have closed their respective cases, a Magistrate must then consider the evidence, and whether consider whether a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt can be made in respect to the prosecution case.
If the Magistrate is not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt, he or she must acquit the accused and find him/her not guilty. Conversely, a finding of guilt will require the Court to impose a sentence on the accused.
The law which governs the sentencing for criminal offences in Victoria is the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic). There are several sentencing outcomes that might be imposed upon a finding of guilty in a particular case depending upon gravity of the offending and the personal circumstances of an accused, and whether they have a prior criminal history.
The Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) contains a variety of sentencing orders, however the main and most frequently imposed outcomes in the Magistrates Court are:
Community Correction Order
If an accused is found guilty, they may either appeal against the finding of guilt (the conviction), or the severity of the sentence an appeal is heard in the County Court. An appeal must be lodged within 28 days of the court outcome.
This article has provided a brief overview of the criminal proceedings in the Magistrates' Court of Victoria. If you require further information or advice regarding any aspect of criminal proceedings, please seek independent legal advice from an accredited criminal law specialist in Victoria.
If you are charged with an offence and must attend Court, call our office on (03) 9668 7600 for an obligation free case assessment. We are happy to talk through your options and discuss how you might best prepare for your day in Court.