Criminal cases in the district and Supreme courts
Please note: If you were arrested or received a Notice to Appear or a Summons before 1 November 2010, these procedures may be slightly different. If this applies to you, you should get legal advice.
If you are charged with a more serious crime (also called an offence), your case will usually have to go through the Magistrates Court before being sent to one of the higher courts, which are called the District and Supreme courts.
What sort of criminal cases do the District and Supreme Courts handle?
District Courts handle indictable criminal offences. Examples are armed robbery and rape.
The Supreme Court handles the most serious charges like murder and serious drug cases.
How do I know I have to go to the District or Supreme court?
Your lawyer, the police or the magistrate will tell you and give you paperwork which you should keep. This will tell you which court to go to and when.
What should I do before court?
It is best to get legal advice before going to court.
Get legal advice from a qualified lawyer. Many people will tell you what you should do, like the police or friends, but it is too important to trust advice from someone who is not qualified in the criminal law.
Should I have a lawyer represent me in the District or Supreme Court?
It is always a good idea to have a lawyer represent you, but it is your right to appear for yourself if you want to. These are serious charges, and a sentence could be harsh if you are convicted (found guilty). A record is kept if you are convicted and this might affect your employment options. You are not allowed to be represented by someone who is not a qualified lawyer.
Who is in charge of what happens in my case in court?
A judge will always be in charge of cases in these courts. Judges in the District and Supreme Courts wear wigs and gowns.
What do I call the judge when I'm in court?
You should call the judge "Your Honour".
Always stand up when the judge talks to you.
Will there be other people be in the courtroom when my case is on?
Most cases are open to the public but the judge can order that some cases be closed.
What happens after my case has been sent to the higher court?
There are two ways your case gets to the higher court:
- via an ex officio indictment (a way to skip the committal stage in the Magistrates Court); or
- a magistrate commits your case to the higher court.
Your case is adjourned (put off) to a specific 'sittings' of the higher court. The date you are given for your case is the starting date for those specific sittings. That is not the date you have to go to court. A 'sittings' is a group of weeks in the court calendar where the court will try to get through all the cases given to it for those sittings.
The real date where something happens in your case is called a call over. If you do not have a lawyer you have to go to the call over in person.
If you do have a lawyer, they will go to the call over for you and you only need to go if the judge says you have to. Your lawyer will tell you if this happens.
At the call over, the prosecutor gives the indictment to the judge. The indictment is the formal paperwork saying what crime you are charged with. The judge asks both the prosecutor and your lawyer if your case is ready to be given a date for sentence or a date for trial.
I have a few charges, will they all be on the same day?
This depends on many things, such as when you were charged and what type of offences they are.
If you were charged with some offences before 1 November 2010 and some after this date, you may have more than one court date. It is important that you contact the court if you are unsure.
If you have minor offences which are in the Magistrates Court as well as more serious charges, you may have court dates in both the magistrates and district or supreme courts. It is important that you check any bail undertaking that you signed and contact the court if you are unsure.
What are my options?
Your two basic options are to either plead guilty (then the judge will sentence you) or not guilty (you will have a trial). You need to know what the police and prosecutor are alleging about you before you can decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty. The decision whether to plead guilty or not guilty has to be yours - no one can tell you what to do, but you can get advice from your lawyer.
Your lawyer will get the police version on paper before court, including witness statements. They will talk to you about the allegations against you. If you don't have a lawyer, you need to talk to the prosecutor from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions before court and get a copy of the paperwork. This paperwork is called the depositions.
What happens on my day in court?
If you have bail, get there early, because if you are late, the judge might issue a warrant for your arrest. If you are in custody, the jail will bring you to the court cells before court starts, and a guard will bring you up to the court room.
You will have to sit in a box facing the judge. This is called the dock. There will be one or two guards sitting outside your dock when you are in it.
What happens if I have a sentence?
There is no jury if you are pleading guilty.
The charge is read out and you will be asked to enter a plea (tell the judge if you are pleading guilty or not guilty).
The judge will decide your sentence after listening to the prosecutor (a lawyer representing the state who tells the court the police version of the case) and your own lawyer.
The prosecutor's job is to act fairly and help the court find out the truth.
Your lawyer tells the judge things about your case that might help you get a lighter sentence. If you represent yourself, this is your chance to tell the judge good things about yourself. These are called mitigating factors. Examples are the fact that you are working, or have references. You can give the judge references from people who know you. References are only useful if the person writing the reference knows that you have been charged with this crime and knows that you are being sentenced for committing the crime.
The judge then sentences you.
What happens if I have a trial?
A trial begins with a jury of 12 people being picked from a large group of ordinary citizens. The prosecutor and your lawyer (or you) choose the jurors.
If you plead not guilty, the prosecutor must prove that you broke the law. It is not up to you to prove you are innocent. Another way of saying this is that the prosecutor has the burden of proof and must prove that you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The prosecutor presents all the evidence they have. Each witness takes their turn to tell the judge and jury what they know about the case.
Your lawyer may cross-examine (ask questions) of the witnesses. The prosecutor might also have other types of evidence depending on the sort of case it is, for example photographs, forensic evidence like DNA or weapons.
You can give evidence and/or call your own witnesses, but you do not have to. You can also call witnesses to testify (give evidence) if they will help your case. You can give evidence yourself, but you do not have to. You have a right to silence. Ask your lawyer if they think you should give evidence or not.
The judge makes decisions about legal arguments, and the jury decides if you are guilty or not guilty based on the facts.
The jury then makes a decision to:
- acquit you (ie: the jury thought there was not enough evidence to prove that you were guilty beyond reasonable doubt) or
- convict you (the jury thought there was enough evidence to prove that you were guilty beyond reasonable doubt).
If you are acquitted, you are free to leave the court house.
If the jury finds you guilty, the judge imposes a sentence.
In some very rare circumstances, you, or your lawyer, can apply to have your trial heard by a judge without a jury.
If you are found guilty of an offence in a Queensland court, you will have to pay the offender levy in addition to any penalty or sentence you receive. See Offender levy.
Do I need legal advice?
You may need legal advice if
- you are going to the District or Supreme Court
- you need help to understand the court process and your options, including what allegations have been made against you and whether to plead guilty or not guilty
- you don't know whether to give evidence in court.
Get legal advice
Legal Aid Queensland may provide advice on most areas of Queensland criminal law. If you have been charged with a serious offence or have an urgent matter, we might suggest that you apply for a grant of legal aid if you are eligible, or seek private representation, rather than wait for a legal advice booking.
Legal Aid Queensland cannot give advice about interstate criminal law. If you have been charged or are going to court in another state, contact that state or territory's Legal Aid for information and advice.
The following organisations may be able to give legal advice on your matter.
Community legal centres give legal advice on a range of topics. Contact them to see if they can help with your matter.
Queensland Law Society can refer you to a specialist private solicitor for advice or representation.
Who else can help?
These organisations may also be able to assist with your matter. They do not provide legal advice.
Queensland courts provide information for people going to court (defendants and witnesses) and general information about the different types of courts in Queensland, eg Magistrates Court, District Court, Supreme Court, Mental Health Court, Childrens court, Coroners court, and more.
Disclaimer: This content is for general purposes only and not legal advice. If you have a legal problem, please contact us or speak to a lawyer. View our full disclaimer.
Last updated 13 April 2023
If you have a general question for Legal Aid Queensland, please use the general question form or call 1300 65 11 88, Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 4.30pm.