CRIMINAL COURTS IN AUSTRALIA
A system of courts for the hearing of criminal matters exists in all Australian states and territories. A criminal matter generally arises where a charge has been laid either by police or some other prosecuting authority. Once charges are laid, 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 In some cases charges may be withdrawn by the prosecution or not proceed to trial. In cases where the defendant is proven guilty, the court may also record a conviction and impose a penalty.
There are differences between the states and territories in the way the Higher Courts, Magistrates' Courts and Children's Courts systems are structured. Legislation differs between states and territories regarding which offence types can be heard summarily or otherwise in the Magistrates' or Children's Courts and which offence types must be heard on indictment to a Higher Court.
All states and territories have a Supreme Court that deals with the most serious criminal matters, generally referred to as indictable offences. These include offences such as murder, manslaughter and drug trafficking as well as serious sexual offences, robberies and assaults. The larger jurisdictions (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia) also have an intermediate level of court, known as the District Court or County Court, that deals with the majority of serious offences. In this publication, the Supreme Courts and Intermediate Courts are collectively referred to as the Higher Courts.
All defendants that are dealt with by the Higher Courts have an automatic entitlement to a trial before a judge and jury, however in some jurisdictions, the defendant may elect to have the matter heard before a judge alone.
The lowest level of criminal court is the Magistrates’ Court, also known as the Court of Summary Jurisdiction, Local Court or Court of Petty Sessions. The majority of all criminal cases are heard in these courts. Cases heard in the Magistrates’ Courts do not involve a jury as a magistrate determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant. This is known as a summary proceeding.
Each state and territory have Children's Courts to deal with offences alleged to have been committed by young people. In the main these courts deal with summary proceedings, however some jurisdictions have the power to also hear indictable matters. The maximum age that defendants are considered a child or juvenile is under the age of 18 years in all states and territories, except Queensland. In Queensland, defendants are considered adults if aged 17 years or over at the time the offence was committed.