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1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2003  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2003   
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Contents >> Crime and Justice >> Courts - 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 determines the guilt 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 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 Courts and Intermediate Courts 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, manslaughter and drug importation as well as serious sexual offences, robberies and assaults.

The defendant proven guilty in a criminal matter is entitled to appeal against the conviction or 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

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 has been 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 national criminal courts statistics collection undertaken by the ABS is to progressively redress this situation through the application of national data standards and counting rules.

Higher criminal courts

Table 11.18 summarises the number of defendants with cases in the Higher Criminal Courts during 2000-01. There were 6,823 defendants pending at the start of 2000-01 and 10,711 defendants initiated during 2000-01, giving a total workload of 17,534 defendants who had criminal cases active at some time during 2000-01, excluding defendants in Queensland (for which there are only partial data - see footnote (b) in the table). There were 10,786 defendants finalised in the Higher Courts during 2000-01.


11.18 DEFENDANTS INITIATED, FINALISED AND PENDING - 2000-01(a)

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

SUPREME COURT

Pending at start
no.
157
75
n.a.
48
93
246
200
188
n.a.
Initiated
no.
112
84
n.a.
32
204
442
365
168
n.a.
Finalised
no.
117
100
785
70
225
450
360
189
2,296
Proportion of active finalised
%
43.2
61.0
n.a.
63.1
68.2
65.4
63.7
53.1
n.a.

INTERMEDIATE COURT(c)

Pending at start
no.
2,323
1,289
n.a.
489
1,715
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Initiated
no.
3,341
2,051
n.a.
1,010
2,902
. .
. .
. .
n.a.
Finalised
no.
3,542
2,055
6,147
860
2,818
. .
. .
. .
15,422
Proportion of active finalised
%
62.6
61.6
n.a.
58.6
61.5
. .
. .
. .
n.a.

TOTAL HIGHER COURTS

Pending at start
no.
2,480
1,364
n.a.
537
1,808
246
200
188
n.a.
Initiated
no.
3,453
2,135
n.a.
1,042
3,106
442
365
168
n.a.
Finalised
no.
3,659
2,155
6,932
930
3,043
450
360
189
17,718
Proportion of active finalised
%
61.7
61.6
n.a.
58.9
61.9
65.4
63.7
53.1
n.a.

(a) Data exclude defendants in appeal cases.
(b) Pending and initiation data are currently not available for Qld. The Qld data for ‘finalised’ exclude bench warrants being issued.
(c) There is no Intermediate Court in Tas., NT or ACT.

Source: Higher Criminal Courts, Australia, 2000-01 (4513.0).


Table 11.19 indicates the methods by which defendants involved in criminal cases were finalised in the Higher Court system during 2000-01. A defendant is regarded as finalised when all the charges laid against them have been concluded in some manner. Of the 17,718 defendants finalised during 2000-01, 77% (13,722) either pleaded guilty or were declared guilty, 7% (1,284) were acquitted and another 13% (2,225) had their charges withdrawn by the prosecution.


11.19 DEFENDANTS FINALISED, By method of finalisation - 2000-01(a)

NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Aust.

SUPREME COURT

Adjudicated
Acquitted
23
19
13
12
7
32
16
16
138
Proven guilty
Guilty verdict
45
30
42
24
48
63
16
23
291
Guilty plea(b)
43
44
623
20
156
264
299
116
1,565
Total
88
74
665
44
204
327
315
139
1,856
Total
111
93
678
56
211
359
331
155
1,994
Non-adjudicated
Bench warrant issued
-
-
n.a.
2
5
6
11
-
(c)24
Withdrawn
6
7
107
11
6
73
17
29
256
Other finalisation
-
-
-
1
3
12
1
5
22
Total
6
7
(c)107
14
14
91
29
34
(c)302
Total defendants finalised
117
100
(c)785
70
225
450
360
189
(c)2,296

INTERMEDIATE COURT(d)

Adjudicated
Acquitted
379
150
301
57
259
. .
. .
. .
1,146
Proven guilty
Guilty verdict
318
211
287
85
348
. .
. .
. .
1,249
Guilty plea(b)
2,351
1,620
4,377
456
1,813
. .
. .
. .
10,617
Total
2,669
1,831
4,664
541
2,161
. .
. .
. .
11,866
Total
3,048
1,981
4,965
598
2,420
. .
. .
. .
13,012
Non-adjudicated
Bench warrant issued
110
27
n.a.
64
175
. .
. .
. .
(c)376
Withdrawn
349
46
1,181
187
206
. .
. .
. .
1,969
Other finalisation
35
1
1
11
17
. .
. .
. .
65
Total
494
74
(c)1,182
262
398
. .
. .
. .
(c)2,410
Total defendants finalised
3,542
2,055
(c)6,147
860
2,818
. .
. .
. .
(c)15,422

TOTAL HIGHER COURTS

Adjudicated
Acquitted
402
169
314
69
266
32
16
16
1,284
Proven guilty
Guilty verdict
363
241
329
109
396
63
16
23
1,540
Guilty plea(b)
2,394
1,664
5,000
476
1,969
264
299
116
12,182
Total
2,757
1,905
5,329
585
2,365
327
315
139
13,722
Total
3,159
2,074
5,643
654
2,631
359
331
155
15,006
Non-adjudicated
Bench warrant issued
110
27
n.a.
66
180
6
11
-
(c)400
Withdrawn
355
53
1,288
198
212
73
17
29
2,225
Other finalisation
35
1
1
12
20
12
1
5
87
Total
500
81
(c)1,289
276
412
91
29
34
(c)2,712
Total defendants finalised
3,659
2,155
(c)6,932
930
3,043
450
360
189
(c)17,718

(a) Data exclude defendants finalised in appeal cases.
(b) Includes defendants who initially pleaded not guilty but changed this to a guilty plea during proceedings.
(c) These totals exclude Qld defendants finalised by a bench warrant being issued.
(d) There is no Intermediate Court in Tas., NT or ACT.

Source: Higher Criminal Courts, Australia, 2000-01 (4513.0).


The process involved in adjudicating criminal charges depends on how a defendant pleads to the charges laid against them. Defendants who initially 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.

Graph 11.20 indicates the proportion of defendants whose initial and final pleas were guilty. The proportions who initially pleaded guilty varied noticeably across the states and territories, ranging from 5% in the Northern Territory to 55% in Western Australia. Changes in plea from not guilty to guilty also varied, with the changes proportionally highest in the Northern Territory (86%) and lowest in Western Australia (18%). However, there was less variation in the proportion of defendants who eventually pleaded guilty, ranging from 70% in South Australia to 90% in the Northern Territory.

Graph - 11.20 Adjudicated defendants, by plea - 2000-01



Graph 11.21 shows the proportion of defendants by age group and sex during 2000-01. The majority (51%) of the 17,718 defendants who were finalised by the Higher Courts in 2000-01 were aged between 17 and 29 years. Males represented 87% of total finalised defendants. Of all defendants finalised during 2000-01, 44% were males aged 17 to 29 years.

Graph - 11.21 Total higher courts, Defendants(a) finalised - 2000-01



Of the defendants proven guilty in the Higher Criminal Courts during 2000-01, excluding the Australian Capital Territory, approximately 55% received a sentence of imprisonment. The proportion was highest for those proven guilty of homicide or a related offence (89%) (graph 11.22).

Graph - 11.22 Defendants proven guilty, Sentenced to imprisonment(a) - 2000-01



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 11.23 provides median duration statistics from initiation to finalisation for defendants in each state and territory. The median duration was shortest in Western Australia and Tasmania (15 weeks) and longest in the Australian Capital Territory (33 weeks). Duration is affected by issues such as the seriousness of the offence with which a defendant has been charged, the type of plea entered, as well as court practices in relation to pre-trial discussions and case listing. In terms of the type of offences considered, there are differing Higher Criminal Court workloads across the states and territories. Defendants finalised in 2000-01 by the trial outcome of guilty verdict had the longest median duration time at 49 weeks.

For all states and territories for which data were available, the median duration for defendants who initially pleaded not guilty was more than double that of defendants who initially pleaded guilty.


11.23 DEFENDANTS(a) IN HIGHER CRIMINAL COURTS, Median duration (weeks) to finalisation - 2000-01(a)

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

Acquitted
38.2
41.7
32.5
34.3
60.3
24.6
63.4
57.6
41.5
Guilty verdict
52.3
51.1
34.9
40.1
63.1
23.0
42.8
53.3
49.3
Guilty plea
19.1
18.1
18.6
19.8
10.1
10.5
16.0
16.9
16.7
Initial plea of not guilty(b)
31.1
31.7
n.a.
23.2
31.0
13.7
17.2
55.3
n.a.
Initial plea of guilty(b)
13.0
13.6
n.a.
11.4
8.0
6.4
5.0
12.6
n.a.
Other finalisation(c)
30.6
41.3
28.4
14.2
27.1
20.9
26.6
67.1
27.0
Total defendants finalised
24.4
23.0
21.7
21.3
14.6
14.6
18.1
33.1
21.3

(a) Data exclude defendants finalised in appeal cases.
(b) Information on both initial and final pleas was not available in Qld.
(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, 2000-01 (4513.0).


Total criminal cases

Table 11.24 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 2000-01, 99% were filed in the Magistrates' Courts, with Victoria and Queensland contributing 60% to the national total. A large proportion of cases in the Magistrates' Court in most states and territories are minor traffic matters.


11.24 CRIMINAL COURT CASES(a)(b) - 2000-01

NSW
Vic.
Qld
SA
WA
Tas.
NT
ACT
Aust.
Court level
’000
’000
’000
’000
’000
’000
’000
’000
’000

Supreme Court
1.0
0.7
1.4
0.3
0.5
0.5
0.4
0.2
4.9
District/County Court(c)
8.5
4.4
8.1
1.3
3.1
. .
. .
. .
25.4
Magistrates' Court(d)(e)(f)
284.3
762.8
470.8
171.4
272.5
65.1
12.4
10.4
2,049.8
Total
293.8
768.0
480.3
173.0
276.1
65.6
12.8
10.7
2,080.1

(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 NT, ACT and Tas. do not have District/County Courts.
(d) Qld lodgment data for the Magistrates' Court have been extrapolated using available data for the period January to June 2001.
(e) Tas. has estimated statewide totals for criminal magistrates' lodgments (both minor and primary).
(f) Includes Childrens and Electronic Courts.

Source: Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision, 'Report on Government Services 2002'.


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