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The criminal court system 

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The police investigate if laws have been broken. They can charge you if they believe you have broken the law. The police will tell you the date on which you must first appear before the court for your charges.

It is then up to the court to hear the evidence and decide if you are guilty and what the penalty should be.

Many cases can now be dealt with by the magistrates court. The magistrate decides both guilt and penalty. In the higher courts (district court, Supreme Court) the jury decides if you are guilty and the judge decides the penalty.

Visual representation of the criminal court system: pyramid showing (from top to bottom) High Court > Court of Appeal > Supreme Court (judge and jury) for murder and other complex cases > District court (judge and jury) for indictable offences > Magistrates court (no jury) for summary offences and some indictable offences

Important principles

  1. You are considered innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt

    This means it is up to the police to give evidence to the court to prove you are guilty. If you plead not guilty, you or your lawyer can defend the charge. If you plead guilty, the court only hears a summary of the evidence and finds the case proved. It then decides the penalty.

  2. It is an adversarial system

    This means the police and the defence (you and your lawyer if you have one) are opposing sides (adversaries). Each side may give evidence to the court. When deciding if you are guilty or not, the court will think about only the evidence and what is said in court. The court has no power to investigate further.

I've been charged with an offence — what happens now?

This flowchart explains what happens after being charged with an offence.

You will have to appear in court

There are four ways you can be made to go to court.

  1. The police could take you to court – if the police arrest you, they can take you to the watch-house and keep you in their custody until you have to appear in court.
  2. You could receive bail and be ordered to go to court – instead of being taken into custody by the police, you might be given bail and allowed to go home. To get bail you will need to sign a document promising you will go to court on a certain date to face the charges against you.
  3. You could receive a Notice to appear – instead of being placed in custody by the police, you might be given a Notice to appear and be allowed to go home (see sample on page 40).
  4. You could receive a Summons to appear – You can be charged and given a Summons to appear before the court (see sample on page 41).

You need to know what the police are alleging as the basis of the charge to decide how you will plead

Duty lawyer – Line up to see the duty lawyer who will get the QP9 from police for you and give you legal advice.

Represent yourself – Get the QP9 form from the police prosecutor and tell them you are going to represent yourself.

Decide if you want to plead guilty or not guilty

Summary matters

For charges that can be dealt with in the magistrates court

Pleading guilty

You can plead guilty and finalise your matter on the first court date or request an adjournment for good reasons

Hearing of guilty plea

Magistrate decides on penalty


If you are not happy with the decision you can appeal. Time limits apply. Get legal advice.

Pleading not guilty

Adjourn to get legal representation or to request a brief from police prosecutions

Summary callover

You must enter a plea at this stage

[If you decide to plead guilty: skip to the 'HEARING OF GUILTY PLEA' stage under 'PLEADING GUILTY']

Final hearing

Witnesses give evidence and the magistrate decides on guilt and penalty

Charges to be dealt with in the District or Supreme courts.

Committal callover

You will need to tell the court whether:

  • there is any specific material you want the prosecutor to provide (eg CCTV footage)
  • you want to make an application to crossexamine witnesses. Your matter will then either be listed for a hearing or for another mention in three weeks for material to be provided to you.

Committal hearing

If the court has allowed an application to crossexamine witnesses, you will be allowed to ask the witnesses questions at the hearing. Otherwise, the magistrate will read all of the prosecution material and decide whether or not to commit your charges to the district or Supreme Court.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions has six months from the date of your committal to present your charges in the district or Supreme Court. They will send you a notice of the date you will need to be in court.

Last modified: 5 September 2014 11:45AM
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The criminal court system