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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2002  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2002   
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Contents >> Crime and Justice >> Criminal courts

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; the magistrate acts to determine the guilt of the defendant. This is known as a summary proceeding. Only 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, which can deal with all criminal matters. The larger jurisdictions also have an intermediate level of court, known as the District or County Court, which deals with the majority of serious offences. The Supreme Court and Intermediate Court are collectively referred to as the Higher Courts.

All offences which 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 which must be heard before a judge and jury are known as indictable offences. These include offences such as murder and drug importation as well as serious sexual offences, robberies and assaults.

The defendant in a criminal matter is entitled to appeal against the conviction or 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 from all jurisdictions is the High Court of Australia.


National criminal courts statistics

The aim of national criminal courts statistics is to provide comparable data across the States and Territories. The data provided are indicators of the volume and flow of criminal matters through the Supreme and Intermediate Courts (together comprising the Higher Courts), and provide a basis for measuring changes over time.


Higher criminal courts

Table 11.14 summarises the flow of defendants through the Higher Courts during 1999-2000. The workload of the criminal courts can be shown by the number of defendants involved in cases started before 1999-2000 and which are still being processed (pending at start) and by the number of defendants with cases started in the Higher Courts during 1999-2000 (initiated). Excluding defendants in Queensland (for which there are only partial data - see footnote (b) in table 11.14), there were 7,649 defendants pending at the start of 1999-2000 and 11,007 defendants initiated during 1999-2000, giving a total workload of 18,656 defendants who had criminal cases active at some time during 1999-2000. Of this total workload, 11,511 defendants (62%) were finalised in the Higher Courts during 1999-2000. The number of defendants initiated in Queensland during 1999-2000 was 5,985; the number finalised was 7,379.


11.14 DEFENDANTS INITIATED, FINALISED AND PENDING - 1999-2000(a)

Status
NSW
Vic.
Qld(b)
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Aust.(b)

SUPREME COURT

Pending at start
193
77
n.a.
40
86
277
153
182
n.a.
Initiated
98
113
n.a.
58
206
718
315
196
n.a.
Transferred in
-
-
n.a.
34
15
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Transferred out
7
-
n.a.
10
1
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Finalised
126
103
856
70
211
730
265
182
2,543
Pending at end
158
87
n.a.
52
95
265
203
196
n.a.

INTERMEDIATE COURT(c)

Pending at start
3,151
1,329
n.a.
410
1,751
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Initiated
3,338
2,122
n.a.
965
2,878
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Transferred in
7
-
n.a.
10
1
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Transferred out
-
-
n.a.
34
15
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Finalised
4,079
2,106
6,523
840
2,799
. .
. .
. .
16,347
Pending at end
2,417
1,345
n.a.
511
1,816
. .
. .
. .
n.a.

TOTAL HIGHER COURTS(c)

Pending at start
3,344
1,406
n.a.
450
1,837
277
153
182
n.a.
Initiated
3,436
2,235
5,985
1,023
3,084
718
315
196
16,992
Transferred in
7
-
n.a.
44
16
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Transferred out
7
-
n.a.
44
16
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Finalised
4,205
2,209
7,379
910
3,010
730
265
182
18,890
Pending at end
2,575
1,432
n.a.
563
1,911
265
203
196
n.a.

(a) Data exclude defendants in appeal cases.
(b) Initiation data for Queensland only include defendants committed; data for other methods of initiation are not currently available. The Queensland data for ‘finalised’ exclude bench warrants being issued. Counts of defendants pending and defendants transferred are not currently available for Queensland.
(c) There is no Intermediate Court in Tasmania, the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory.

Source: Higher Criminal Courts, Australia, 1999-2000 (4513.0).


Table 11.15 indicates the methods by which defendants involved in criminal cases were finalised in the Higher Court system during 1999-2000. A defendant is regarded as finalised when all the charges laid against them have been concluded in some manner. There were 18,890 defendants finalised in the Higher Criminal Courts during 1999-2000. Of the 16,143 defendants finalised as a result of the charges being adjudicated (proven guilty or acquitted), 91% had at least one charge with a proven outcome (guilty verdict or guilty plea), while the remainder were acquitted.


11.15 DEFENDANTS FINALISED, By Method of Finalisation - 1999-2000(a)

Method of finalisation
NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Aust.

SUPREME COURT

Adjudicated -
- Acquitted
19
13
28
17
8
33
19
13
150
- Proven guilty-
-Guilty verdict
37
36
58
16
38
72
9
18
284
-Guilty plea
61
48
654
25
146
492
188
109
1,723
-Total proven guilty
98
84
712
41
184
564
197
127
2,007
Total adjudicated
117
97
740
58
192
597
216
140
2,157
Non-adjudicated -
- Bench warrant issued
1
-
n.a.
-
7
22
12
8
(b)50
- Withdrawn
7
6
116
12
9
101
37
30
318
- Other finalisation
1
-
-
-
3
10
-
4
18
Total non-adjudicated
9
6
(b)116
12
19
133
49
42
(b)386
Total defendants finalised
126
103
(b)856
70
211
730
265
182
(b)2,543

INTERMEDIATE COURT(c)

Adjudicated -
- Acquitted
431
198
365
57
225
. .
. .
. .
1,276
- Proven guilty -
- Guilty verdict
394
163
317
78
355
. .
. .
. .
1,307
- Guilty plea
2,640
1,653
4,711
499
1,900
. .
. .
. .
11,403
-Total proven guilty
3,034
1,816
5,028
577
2,255
. .
. .
. .
12,710
Total adjudicated
3,465
2,014
5,393
634
2,480
. .
. .
. .
13,986
Non-adjudicated -
- Bench warrant issued
147
11
n.a.
46
94
. .
. .
. .
(b)298
- Withdrawn
418
78
1,122
151
208
. .
. .
. .
1,977
- Other finalisation
49
3
8
9
17
. .
. .
. .
86
Total non-adjudicated
614
92
(b)1,130
206
319
. .
. .
. .
(b)2,361
Total defendants finalised
4,079
2,106
(b)6,523
840
2,799
. .
. .
. .
(b)16,347

TOTAL HIGHER COURTS(c)

Adjudicated -
- Acquitted
450
211
393
74
233
33
19
13
1,426
- Proven guilty -
- Guilty verdict
431
199
375
94
393
72
9
18
1,591
- Guilty plea
2,701
1,701
5,365
524
2,046
492
188
109
13,126
- Total proven guilty
3,132
1,900
5,740
618
2,439
564
197
127
14,717
Total adjudicated
3,582
2,111
6,133
692
2,672
597
216
140
16,143
Non-adjudicated -
- Bench warrant issued
148
11
n.a.
46
101
22
12
8
(b)348
- Withdrawn
425
84
1,238
163
217
101
37
30
2,295
- Other finalisation
50
3
8
9
20
10
-
4
104
Total non-adjudicated
623
98
(b)1,246
218
338
133
49
42
(b)2,747
Total defendants finalised
4,205
2,209
(b)7,379
910
3,010
730
265
182
(b)18,890

(a) Data exclude defendants finalised in appeal cases.
(b) These totals exclude Qld defendants finalised by a bench warrant being issued.
(c) There is no Intermediate Court in Tasmania, the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory.

Source: Higher Criminal Courts, Australia, 1999-2000 (4513.0).


The process involved in adjudicating criminal charges depends on how a defendant pleads to the charges laid against them. Defendants who plead guilty to all charges are not subject to a jury trial and go through a sentence hearing to determine the penalty. In contrast, defendants who plead not guilty to at least one charge are typically subject to a trial by jury which determines whether they are acquitted or found guilty. Information on the pleas entered by defendants at the start of their criminal cases provides an indication of the potential demand for trials in the Higher Courts, while information on the final pleas entered by defendants provides an indication of the trials that were actually completed.

Graph 11.16 indicates the proportion of defendants whose initial and final pleas were guilty. Of the defendants who were finalised by adjudication, the proportion with an initial plea of guilty varied considerably among the States and Territories, ranging from 6% in the Northern Territory to 54% in Western Australia. The proportion of defendants changing their plea from not guilty to guilty was highest in the Northern Territory (81%) and lowest in Western Australia (20%). The proportion of defendants with a final plea of guilty ranged from 72% in South Australia to 87% in the Northern Territory.




For defendants who have been dealt with by the courts, duration figures are available that indicate the elapsed time taken to finalise all charges for a defendant from the date the defendant's case commenced. The total duration for a finalised defendant includes the time taken by the defence and prosecution to prepare their cases, the time taken to list the case and the actual time taken for any hearings.

Table 11.17 provides median duration statistics from initiation to finalisation for defendants in each State and Territory. The median duration was shortest in Tasmania at 14 weeks and longest in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales at 33 weeks. Duration is affected by issues such as the seriousness of the offence with which a defendant has been charged and the type of plea entered. In terms of the type of offences considered, there are differing Higher Criminal Court workloads across the States and Territories. Those Courts which have a higher proportion of cases dealing with charges relating to crimes such as murder, attempted murder or serious assault would expect to have a longer median duration compared with Courts hearing a lower proportion of cases with such charges. Defendants finalised in 1999-2000 by the trial outcome of guilty verdict had the longest median duration time at 49 weeks.

Defendants finalised by guilty plea are divided into those with an initial plea of guilty (i.e. initiated for sentence) and those with a initial plea of not guilty (i.e. initiated for trial). Data on initial pleas were not available for Queensland. In most other States and Territories, the median duration for defendants who initially pleaded not guilty was more than double that of defendants who initially pleaded guilty.


11.17 DEFENDANTS IN HIGHER CRIMINAL COURTS, Median Duration (Weeks) to Finalisation - 1999-2000(a)

Method of finalisation
NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Aust.

Acquitted
46.2
42.4
29.4
27.8
63.4
35.9
52.9
50.4
41.3
Guilty verdict
67.4
52.1
32.7
29.8
64.6
32.7
64.4
51.7
49.3
Guilty plea -
27.0
18.6
17.9
17.0
11.7
10.8
15.1
19.3
17.4
- Initial plea of Not Guilty(b)
39.3
37.4
n.a.
20.1
26.3
15.5
15.5
34.6
n.a.
- Initial plea of Guilty(b)
15.3
14.8
n.a.
9.4
10.7
7.3
10.9
13.7
n.a.
Other finalisation(c)
36.1
32.9
27.1
14.9
25.5
21.3
26.1
46.3
27.1
Total defendants finalised
33.0
23.4
20.6
19.3
14.7
14.4
18.1
33.1
22.1

(a) Data exclude defendants finalised in appeal cases.
(b) Information on both initial and final pleas was not available in Queensland.
(c) Includes defendants who were withdrawn by the prosecution, remitted to the Magistrates' Court or finalised by another non-adjudicated method.

Source: Higher Criminal Courts, Australia, 1999-2000 (4513.0).


Graph 11.18 shows the proportion of defendants by age group during 1999-2000. Just over half (52%) of the defendants finalised during 1999-2000 were aged between 17 and 29 years, with more than one in five defendants (22%) falling in the 20-24 year age group. The median ages of male and female defendants were almost the same at 29 and 28 years respectively. The majority (87%) of finalised defendants were male.




Total criminal cases

Table 11.19 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 1999-2000, 98% were filed in the Magistrates' Courts, with Victoria and Queensland contributing 62% to the national total. A large proportion of cases in the Magistrates' Court in most States and Territories are minor traffic matters.


11.19 CRIMINAL COURT CASES(a)(b), By Court Level - 1999-2000

Court level
NSW

’000
Vic.

’000
Qld

’000
SA

’000
WA

’000
Tas.

’000
NT

’000
ACT

’000
Aust.

’000

Supreme Court
1.0
0.7
1.4
0.4
0.5
0.7
0.3
0.2
5.2
District/County Court(c)
9.7
4.1
8.4
1.1
3.0
. .
. .
. .
26.2
Magistrates' Court
290.6
628.2
379.4
187.2
62.8
49.7
18.5
10.6
1,626.8
Total
301.3
633.0
389.2
188.7
66.3
50.4
18.8
10.8
1,658.3

(a) Cases are defined as one or more defendants with one or more criminal matters before the courts.
(b) Data include appeal and non-appeal cases.
(c) The Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania do not have District/County Courts.

Source: Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision, Report on Government Services 2001.


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