Australian Bureau of Statistics
1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2004
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/02/2004
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Many courts and court-related tribunals operate throughout Australia. The majority of courts handle matters that are criminal or civil in nature, while tribunals provide a less costly alternative for progressing some civil and administrative matters outside the formality of a court. A criminal matter generally arises where a charge has been laid either by police or some other prosecuting authority on the basis of a breach of criminal law. A civil matter occurs where there is a dispute between two or more individuals or organisations, where one party seeks legal remedy for an injury or loss from the other party who is alleged to be liable.
11.16 HIERARCHY OF COURTS
(a) In some jurisdictions, appeals from lower courts may go directly to the court of appeal in the Supreme Court. In the ACT, the court of appeal of the Supreme Court commenced exercising limited jurisdiction on 31 October 2001; full jurisdiction did not commence until 14 October 2002.
(b) Appeals from federal, state and territory tribunals may go to any higher court in their jurisdiction.
Source: Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision, 'Report on Government Services 2003'.
A system of courts for the hearing of criminal matters exists in all Australian states and territories. Once charges are laid by police, the court will hear evidence by both prosecution and defence, and will make a decision as to whether or not the defendant is guilty. In cases where the defendant is found guilty, the court may also record a conviction and impose a penalty.
The courts in Australia are arranged hierarchically. The lowest level of criminal court is the Magistrates' Court or Court of Summary Jurisdiction. The majority of all criminal cases are heard in these courts. Cases heard in Magistrates' Courts do not involve a jury and a magistrate determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant. This is known as a summary proceeding. Relatively minor offences such as property damage or minor road traffic offences can be dealt with in this way. More serious offences are dealt with by the higher court levels.
All states and territories have a Supreme Court that can deal with all criminal matters. The larger jurisdictions also have an intermediate level of court, known as the District or County Court, that deals with the majority of serious offences. The Supreme Courts and Intermediate Courts are collectively referred to as the Higher Courts.
All offences that are dealt with by the Higher Courts have an automatic entitlement to a trial before a judge and jury. In some jurisdictions, the defendant may elect to have the matter heard before a judge alone. Offences that must be heard before a judge and jury are known as indictable offences. These include offences such as murder, manslaughter and drug importation as well as serious sexual offences, robberies and assaults.
A defendant proven guilty in a criminal matter is entitled to appeal against the conviction or against the severity of penalty imposed. Under some circumstances, the prosecution is also entitled to appeal against the leniency of the penalty. The states and territories differ in the ways in which they deal with appeals. Some appeals from Magistrates' Courts may be heard before the Intermediate Courts. In other jurisdictions, the Supreme Court may hear these appeals. In most jurisdictions, an appeal court or Court of Criminal Appeal may be constituted to hear appeals from the Supreme or Intermediate Courts. In Australia, the highest court of appeal for all jurisdictions is the High Court of Australia.
National criminal courts statistics
As well as differences across the states and territories in terms of legislation, court procedures and the type of matters dealt with, there are also variations in data management practices and differences in the information that is collected as part of court processes. The net result of such differences is a lack of readily available nationally comparable data on court activities and the characteristics of people whose matters are handled by the various courts. The aim of the national criminal courts statistics collection undertaken by the ABS is to redress this situation progressively through the application of national data standards and counting rules.
Higher Criminal Courts finalisations
The number of finalisations in the Higher Criminal Courts decreased by less than 1% to 17,997 between 2000-01 and 2001-02. This was the first decrease in finalisations recorded for this collection since 1996-97 (table 11.17).
11.18 HIGHER CRIMINAL COURTS FINALISATIONS - 2001-02
Of the 17,997 defendants finalised in the Higher Criminal Courts during 2001-02, 78% were proven guilty (i.e. pleaded guilty or were declared guilty at trial) and 6% were acquitted (diagram 11.18). Of the 14,073 defendants who were proven guilty, 91% pleaded guilty and the other 9% were declared guilty at trial. Combined, these two finalisation outcomes represent defendants who had their cases adjudicated by the courts (85% or 15,229). The remaining 15% (2,768) of defendants were finalised by a non-adjudicated method. This includes charges withdrawn by the prosecution, the defendant absconding or the defendant dying.
Of adjudicated defendants, guilty pleas accounted for 84%. The remaining 16% were subject to a trial outcome, of which over half were found guilty.
Age and sex
Approximately one-third of both male and female adjudicated defendants in the Higher Criminal Courts were aged 25-34 years (graph 11.19). The median age of defendants finalised by adjudication was 29 years (table 11.20). The majority (55%) of adjudicated defendants were aged between 20 and 34 years.
Five principal offence categories accounted for the majority of the adjudicated defendants in Australia's Higher Criminal Courts during 2001-02 (table 11.20). These were: acts intending to cause injury (including assault) (20%); UEWI (including burglary and break and enter) (15%); offences related to robbery and extortion (13%); illicit drug offences (13%); and offences related to sexual assault (10%). There were 10,934 defendants adjudicated by the Higher Criminal Courts with a principal offence in one of these five offence categories.
For both male and female defendants, the most prevalent principal offence category for which they were adjudicated was acts intending to cause injury (21% of males and 19% of females). Males were more likely than females to have been adjudicated for a principal offence of sexual assault or UEWI, while females were more likely than males to have been adjudicated for a principal offence of deception or illicit drug offences. Males and females were approximately equally likely to have been adjudicated for homicide and related offences (graph 11.21).
The median age of adjudicated defendants displayed considerable variation across the principal offence categories. Defendants with a principal offence related to sexual assault had a median age of 40 years, while defendants with a principal offence related to robbery and extortion or UEWI (including break and enter) had a median age of 24 years.
Principal offence duration
Of all adjudicated defendants, those who received a guilty verdict had a median duration (from initiation to finalisation in the Higher Criminal Courts) of 47 weeks, and those who were acquitted at trial had a median duration of 37 weeks (table 11.22). For those who pleaded guilty the median duration was 17 weeks.
Change in plea
The initial plea entered by the defendant has implications for the workload of the Higher Criminal Courts and the length of time a defendant remains active within the court system. An initial plea of 'not guilty' may lead to a trial while an initial plea of 'guilty' will negate the need for a trial and result in a sentencing hearing.
Of the defendants finalised by adjudication (excluding Queensland), 55% (5,038) entered the Higher Criminal Courts with a not guilty plea and were therefore expected to be tried (table 11.23). Of the defendants who initially pleaded not guilty, 59% (2,994) changed their plea to guilty during proceedings in the Higher Criminal Courts.
In general, defendants with an initial plea of guilty had a shorter duration than defendants with an initial plea of not guilty and final plea of guilty. Defendants entering an initial plea of not guilty and final plea of guilty in turn had a shorter duration than defendants with an initial and final plea of not guilty.
Just over half (54%) of defendants proven guilty received custodial orders to be served in a correctional facility (i.e. custodial orders excluding fully suspended sentences) (table 11.24).
Nationally, 28% of defendants proven guilty received a principal sentence type of a non-custodial order (includes community supervision/work orders, monetary orders and other non-custodial orders) (table 11.24). The most common non-custodial sentence type was a community supervision/work order (71% of non-custodial sentences).
For both males and females, the number of defendants who received custodial orders to be served in a correctional facility (i.e. custodial orders excluding fully suspended sentences) was greatest for defendants aged 25-34 years (graph 11.25).
Total criminal cases
Table 11.26 shows the total number of criminal cases handled in the courts of Australia, including appeal and non-appeal cases. Of all the criminal cases filed in Australia during 2001-02, 95% were filed in the Magistrates' Courts, with New South Wales and Queensland being the largest contributors to the national total. A large proportion of cases in the Magistrates' Court in most states and territories are minor traffic matters.
This page last updated 24 March 2006
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