What happens at the Magistrates Court
If a defendant is charged with an offence, they usually appear first in the Magistrates Court, which deals with 95% of cases. (If they’re under the age of 17, they appear in the Childrens Court.)
Below is the process for what generally happens in the Magistrates Court when you’re charged with an offence. The magistrate makes all decisions based on information provided to the court.
Offences are classed as simple offences or crimes and misdemeanors (indictable offences):
- simple offences—driving offences, creating a public nuisance, trespassing and minor drug offences
- indictable offences—burglary, unlawful use of a motor vehicle, fraud and assault occasioning bodily harm. (For indictable offences such as rape, armed robbery and murder, the Magistrate Court determines if there is enough evidence to refer the case for trial in the Supreme or District Court.)
The first mention
This is your first day in court, which you must not miss. There are no witnesses.
- The depositions clerk calls you and then calls ‘all rise’ as the magistrate enters and sits at the bench.
- The magistrate stands and reads out the charges against you.
- The magistrates asks you how you plead—guilty or not guilty.
- Either you or your defence lawyer stands and responds.
- For simple offences:
- You or your lawyer may ask for an adjournment for more time to consider a plea and set a date.
- You may plead guilty and the magistrate listens to submissions or information presented, then decides on a penalty.
- You may plead not guilty to a simple offence and the magistrate sets a summary hearing. (The magistrate may set other ‘mentions’ before the summary hearing to confirm each party is prepared.)
- For indictable offences:
- You may plead guilty to a minor indictable offence and the magistrate either decides the penalty then or sets a date for a sentence hearing.
- For other indictable offences, the magistrate sets a committal hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to send the defendant to trial in the Supreme or District Court.
If you plead not guilty to a simple offence at your first mention, the magistrates sets a summary hearing. At this hearing, you can plead guilty or not guilty.
If you plead guilty, the magistrate listens to submissions from both parties and decides a penalty or sets a date for a sentence hearing.
At this point, the magistrate also refers drug offenders to relevant court diversion programs and Indigenous defendants to the Murri Court for sentencing.
Pleading not guilty
If you plead not guilty:
- The prosecutor outlines the evidence.
- Each witness is led to the witness box and swears an oath or makes an affirmation.
- The prosecutor may question each witness to obtain their evidence.
- The magistrate may ask questions of each witness.
Once the prosecutor is finished questioning the witness:
- You or your lawyer may question (cross-examine) the witness.
- The prosecutor may re-examine each witness.
- You or your lawyer may then submit there is no case to answer.
- The magistrate may:
- find there is not enough evidence and dismiss the case
- decide there is a case to answer, and you or your lawyer can call defence witnesses to start the process again.
When all witnesses are questioned, both parties summarise their cases to the magistrate.
The magistrate then finds the defendant either not guilty (and dismisses the charges) or guilty (and decides on a penalty or sets a sentence hearing).
At a committal hearing, the magistrate must decide if there is enough evidence on which a jury could convict to send you to trial in the District Court or Supreme Court.
- The prosecutor presents the case against the defendant and calls witnesses to obtain evidence.
- The defence lawyer or defendant may cross-examine the witnesses.
- The magistrate may invite submissions.
- After hearing all evidence, the magistrate decides if there is enough evidence to put you on trial.
- If there is not enough evidence, the magistrate dismisses the case.
- If there is enough evidence, the magistrate charges you. They warn you and then ask if you want to say anything in answer to the charge or enter a plea:
- If you plead not guilty, you are committed for trial in the District Court or Supreme Court.
- If you plead guilty, you are committed for sentencing.
If you are committed to trial, you may be held in prison until the hearing (if the magistrate feels you may be at risk of not appearing, or you may commit other offences, interfere with witnesses or be a danger to yourself.)
You may be released on bail (which is a promise to come back to court for trial or sentencing). You may be ordered to participate in a prescribed program as a condition of your bail. Other conditions may be reporting to police regularly or a surety (money or property put up to guarantee your appearance in court).