4513.0 - Criminal Courts, Australia, 2011-12 Quality Declaration 
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 14/02/2013   
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Contents >> Introduction >> Criminal Courts in Australia


Policing and other law enforcement and regulatory agencies are responsible for the prevention, detection and investigation of crimes. When alleged offenders are detected by police, they can be proceeded against either through the use of a non-court action (such as a caution, fine or diversionary conference) or by charges being laid before a criminal court. When an offender appears before a court, they are referred to as the defendant. Their case may be comprised of one or more charges, which the court treats as one unit of work. With the assistance of the prosecution and the defence, the court determines whether the defendant is guilty. In some cases, some or all charges may be withdrawn by the prosecution or not proceed to trial. In cases where the defendant is proven guilty, the court may record a conviction and impose a penalty.

There are different levels of courts, which deal with different types of matters. In addition, all courts are divided into criminal and civil jurisdictions. The civil jurisdiction deals with matters of a non-criminal nature, such as claims for damages. The civil courts are outside the scope of this publication. Some parts of the criminal jurisdiction are also out of scope, such as the outcomes of specialist courts. Cases processed by specialist courts may commence in the Higher, Magistrate's or Children's Courts and, if so, will be counted in this publication as finalised by transfer to another court.

Within the criminal jurisdiction, all states and territories have a Supreme Court that deals with the most serious criminal matters, generally referred to as indictable offences. These offences include murder, manslaughter and drug trafficking as well as serious sexual offences, robberies and assaults. The larger states (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. In some states and territories, 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 has Children's Courts to deal with offences alleged to have been committed by young people. These courts mainly deal with summary proceedings, however in some jurisdictions they also have the power to 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, where defendants are considered adults if aged 17 years or over at the time the offence was committed.

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.

State and territories court level chart


The criminal courts are just one sector within Australia's Crime and Justice system, the others being the police sector and the corrective services sector. A proceeding in the criminal courts often begins as a result of police activity and can end, for persons found guilty, with a sentence served in a correctional facility.

Statistics on elements of the police sector are provided in the ABS publications Recorded Crime - Victims (cat. no. 4510.0) and Recorded Crime - Offenders (cat. no. 4519.0).

Statistics on the corrective services sector - that is the administration of adult persons found guilty and sentenced to a corrective services facility - are provided in the ABS publications Prisoners in Australia (cat. no. 4517.0) and Corrective Services, Australia (cat. no. 4512.0).


This publication presents statistics about defendants dealt with by the criminal jurisdiction of the Higher (Supreme and Intermediate), Magistrates' and Children's Courts of Australia, for the period 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012. Defendants include persons charged with criminal offences for each court level as well as organisations charged with criminal offences for the Higher and Magistrates' Courts. The statistics are based on data extracted from administrative records held by state and territory agencies responsible for courts administration. The statistics have been compiled according to national standards and classifications (see Explanatory Notes paragraphs 19-20).

Finalised defendants

The data in the Criminal Courts collection counts defendants finalised in the court - that is, a person or organisation for whom all charges have been formally completed so that the defendant ceases to be an item of work. If a person or organisation is a defendant in a number of criminal cases dealt with and finalised separately within the courts during the reference period, they will be counted more than once in the reference period, either within the same court level or across court levels. For more information about the counting methodology, see Explanatory Notes paragraph 28-29 & 39.

The statistics provide a profile of the characteristics of defendants, as well as data about the offences for which they have been charged, the case outcome (guilty/not guilty), and sentence outcomes for those proven guilty.

The Explanatory Notes provide detailed information on the data sources, comparability, definitions, counting rules and other technical matters associated with the ABS Criminal Courts data collection.

For ease of reading, some terms have been abbreviated throughout this publication - 'principal sentence' is referred to as 'sentence' and 'principal offence' is referred to as 'offence'. The term 'and related offences' has also been omitted for the following offence categories: homicide and related offences; sexual assault and related offences; robbery, extortion and related offences; theft and related offences; and fraud, deception and related offences. 'Offences against justice procedures, government security and government operations' has been shortened to 'offences against justice'.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants

Data identifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants are available for selected state and territories and selected court levels only. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status is based on self-identification by the individual who comes into contact with police, rather than the courts. The quality of the data is dependent on police asking individuals to self-identify and responses being recorded on police systems. Where individuals are not able to provide an answer for themselves, jurisdictions may accept a response where a next of kin/guardian provides the information. This information flows through from the police records to the courts records.

The ABS assesses the quality of this data for each state and territory and each court level. Data quality can vary due to a range of factors - Explanatory Notes 49-52 provide more information. The data presented in this publication have been assessed as being of sufficient quality for national reporting purposes. For ease of reading, 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status' is also referred to as Indigenous Status in relevant tables,


Offence data were first published for the Higher Courts for 2001-02; for the Magistrates' Courts for 2003-04; and for the Children's Courts for 2006-07. These data were based on the 1997 edition of the Australian Standard Offence Classification (ASOC97).

From the 2008–09 reference period, offence data from the Criminal Courts collection is based on the revised edition of the classification (ASOC08). Courts agencies in all states and territories migrated to the revised offence classification in 2008-09. In June 2011, ASOC08 was renamed as the Australian and New Zealand Standard Offence Classification (ANZSOC). No changes were made to the content of the classification.

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