Federal Defendants, Australia methodology

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Reference period
2019-20 financial year

About this data

The Federal Defendants, Australia data relates to persons and organisations charged with an offence against Commonwealth legislation, whose case(s) have been finalised within the criminal jurisdictions of the Higher, Magistrates' or Children's Courts between 1 July 2019 and 30 June 2020.

The data covers federal defendant demographics, principal federal offence, sentencing and case duration information. Data on federal offenders in prison is included in Prisoners in Australia.

Defendants whose cases relate only to offences under state or territory legislation are not in scope of this release, but are included in Criminal Courts, Australia.

Charges against Commonwealth legislation can be prosecuted by state and territory police agencies, the Australian Federal Police, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, state Directors of Public Prosecutions, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Tax Office and other (generally Commonwealth) authorities.

The Australian Road Rules (maintained by the National Transport Commission) only apply in each state and territory if they have been enacted by legislation. For example, in the Northern Territory, offences against the Australian Road Rules are identified as federal offences. However, to ensure consistency across all states and territories, the Australian Road Rules and the associated state and territory enacting legislation, are excluded from the scope of the Federal Defendants collection.

For comparability purposes, federal offences based on national laws enacted under state and territory legislation are excluded from the scope of the Federal Defendants collection from 2016–17. Data for 2015–16 (published in the 2016–17 issue) were revised to reflect this change. Caution should be used when making historical comparisons.

The geographic definition of Australia, as used by the ABS, includes 'Other Territories'. Defendants finalised on Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island are included in the counts for Western Australia, where applicable. Defendants finalised in Jervis Bay Territory are not included.

    Data source

    Statistics presented in this publication are compiled based on administrative unit record data supplied to the ABS by the agencies responsible for courts administration in each state and territory, with the exception of Queensland (where data are supplied via the Office of the Government Statistician), and New South Wales (where data are supplied via the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research).

    To ensure consistency between the states and territories, each one is required to provide data coded to national classifications and standards.

      Counting methodology

      The principal counting unit for this collection is the finalised defendant.  A finalised defendant is defined as a person or organisation for whom all charges within a case have been formally completed so that they cease to be an active item of work for the court during the reference period. The method of finalisation for each charge at case completion may be a guilty outcome, acquittal, withdrawal, transfer, or other outcome.

      The Federal Defendants collection does not enumerate unique persons, instead the following counting rules are applied:

      • Where a defendant is finalised for more than one case, on the same date and in the same court level, their records are merged and they are counted as one finalised defendant
      • Where a defendant is finalised for more than one case, on separate dates within the reference period, they will be counted once for each date they were finalised
      • Where a defendant is finalised in the Magistrates' Courts whilst other charges are committed to, and finalised in the Higher Courts, they will be counted once for each court level they were finalised in during the reference period.

      The following counting rules apply with regards to defendants transferred from, or between court levels:

      • Defendants transferred from one Higher Court level to another Higher Court level are considered as initiated only once (in the level they first entered) and finalised only once (from the level they finally left)
      • Defendants transferred from a Magistrates' Court to a Higher Court (or vice versa) are considered as initiated twice (once in each of the courts) and finalised twice (once in each of the courts)
      • Defendants transferred between the Children's Courts and the Magistrates' or Higher Courts (or vice versa) are considered to be initiated twice (once in each of the courts) and finalised twice (once in each of the courts)
      • Defendants transferred from the Magistrates' or Children's Courts to Specialist Courts for finalisation (e.g. Drug Courts, Indigenous Courts) are considered finalised (by transfer) in the criminal court that initiated the transfer. Defendants may then, upon completion of the program, return to the court that requested the transfer, for an additional finalisation.

      For the first time in 2019–20, transfers have been excluded from defendant counts in some tables to remove the double-counting of defendants who were transferred and subsequently adjudicated in a different court level. Excluding transfers provides a more accurate representation of defendant characteristics, particularly for more serious offences where transfers are more common.


        The Census and Statistics Act 1905 provides the authority for the ABS to collect statistical information, and requires that statistical output shall not be published or disseminated in a manner that is likely to enable the identification of a particular person or organisation. To minimise the risk of identifying individuals in aggregate statistics, a technique called perturbation is used to randomly adjust cell values and summary variables. This technique, applied to the collection from 2013–14, involves small random adjustment of the data and is considered the most satisfactory technique for avoiding the release of identifiable statistics while maximising the range of information that can be released. These adjustments have a negligible impact on the underlying pattern of the statistics.

        The result of perturbation is that a given published cell value will be consistent across all tables, but the sum of the components may add to more or less than 100%. Readers are advised to use the published totals rather than deriving totals based on the components. Small values may be proportionally more affected by perturbation than large values. Users are advised against conducting analyses and drawing conclusions based on small values.

        Key data items

        Court levels

        Higher Courts

        All states and territories have a Supreme Court that deals with the most serious criminal matters, generally referred to as an indictable offence (e.g. murder, manslaughter, serious sexual offences, assault, drug trafficking, robbery). 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, which deal with the majority of serious offences. In this publication, the Supreme 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 their matter(s) heard before a judge alone. Children treated as adults by the court may be included in the Higher Courts defendant counts.

        Magistrates' Courts

        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) which hears the majority of all criminal cases. Cases heard in the Magistrates’ Courts do not involve a jury – rather, a magistrate determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. This is known as a summary proceeding. Children treated as adults by the courts may also be finalised in the Magistrates' Courts.

        Children's Courts

        Each state and territory has Children's Courts to deal with offences alleged to have been committed by a child or juvenile. These courts mainly hear summary proceedings, but do have the power to hear indictable matters in some states and territories.

        In all states and territories, a person can only be charged with a criminal offence where they are aged 10 years or over. Defendants are considered to be a child/juvenile where they are under 18 years of age at the time they committed an offence. Prior to February 2018, defendants in Queensland were considered to be a child/juvenile by the courts where they were aged under 17 years.

        Method of finalisation

        Method of finalisation refers to how a criminal charge is concluded by a criminal court. The Method of Finalisation Classification contains the main categories of:

        • Adjudicated finalisation – a judgement or decision by the court as to whether the defendant is guilty of the charge(s) against them, or acquitted
        • Transfers to other court levels – a court order for the criminal charge(s) to be transferred to another court level for adjudication or sentencing
        • Withdrawn by prosecution – the formal withdrawal of a criminal charge(s) by the prosecution (i.e. Police, Director of Public Prosecutions, Attorney-General, or another initiating agency).

        For defendants who had multiple charges with varying outcomes, the method of finalisation is assigned based on the following order of precedence (note, some finalisation types are only applicable to specific court levels):

        • Defendant deceased
        • Unfit to plead
        • Not guilty by reason of mental illness/condition
        • Guilty finding by court
        • Charge proven n.f.d.
        • Guilty plea by defendant
        • Guilty ex-parte
        • No case to answer at committal
        • Charge unproven n.e.c.
        • Transfer from a Magistrates'/Children’s Court to a Higher Court n.f.d.
        • Committed for trial
        • Committed for sentence
        • Transfer from a Magistrates'/Children’s Court to a Higher Court n.e.c.
        • Transfer from a Higher Court to a Magistrates' Court
        • Transfer from a Children’s Court to a Magistrates' Court
        • Other transfer between court levels n.e.c.
        • Transfer to non-court agency
        • Withdrawn by the prosecution
        • Other non-adjudicated finalisation n.e.c.
        • Unknown/not stated

        Principal federal offence (ANZSOC)

        Federal offences are charges against Commonwealth legislation. For this collection, federal offences have been coded to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Offence Classification (ANZSOC), 2011.

        For ease of reading, some ANZSOC offence names have been abbreviated throughout this publication as follows:

        • Dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons appear as 'dangerous/negligent acts'
        • Abduction, harassment and other offences against the person appear as 'abduction/harassment'
        • Robbery, extortion and related offences appear as ‘robbery/extortion’
        • Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter appear as 'unlawful entry with intent'
        • Theft and related offences appear as ‘theft’
        • Fraud, deception and related offences appear as ‘fraud/deception’
        • Prohibited and regulated weapons and explosives offences appear as 'weapons/explosives'
        • Offences against justice procedures, government security and government operations appear as 'offences against justice'.

        The preferred terminology to be used for ANZSOC offence ‘child pornography’ is now ‘child abuse material offences’ and this label has been included in the 2019–20 release.

        Where a defendant has more than one federal offence type, the Method of Finalisation and National Offence Index (NOI), a ranking of offences based on the concept of 'offence seriousness', are used to determine the principal federal offence. 

        For defendants finalised with a single federal offence, this is their principal federal offence.

        For defendants with multiple charges with differing methods of finalisation, the principal federal offence is selected based on the following order of precedence:

        • Defendant deceased, unfit to plead, or not guilty by reason of mental illness
        • Charges proven
        • Charges not proven
        • Transfer of charges
        • Charges withdrawn
        • Other non-adjudicated finalisation
        • Unknown/not stated.

        For example, for a defendant finalised as having a guilty outcome for an offence of ‘obtain benefit by deception’, and acquitted for an offence of ‘threatening behaviour’, their principal federal offence would be ‘obtain benefit by deception’.

        Where a defendant has multiple charges, each with the same method of finalisation, the NOI is used to determine the principal federal offence (i.e. the charge with the highest ranked ANZSOC code on the NOI).

        The rules underpinning the NOI, in particular defining 'offence seriousness' and the impact of this definition on the ranking of offences, need to be considered when using the principal federal offence data in this publication.

        Principal federal offence groups

        The federal offence groups presented in this collection provide an alternate way (to the ANZSOC) of grouping federal offences, based on offence types that are of particular interest to users of data relating to federal defendants.

        The federal offence groups presented are based on the Commonwealth legislation the defendant was charged under, with the exception of offences against the Criminal Code Act 1995, Crimes Act 1914, Migration Act 1958, Competition and Consumer Act 2010 and Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 which are assigned using both Act and Section level information. The groups are subject to regular review, following changes to federal legislation or emerging user needs.

        The federal offence groups are not an ABS standard nor related to ANZSOC, and may comprise offences that reside in different ANZSOC divisions. For the definitions of groups and the Commonwealth Acts, sections and ANZSOC categories contained within each group refer to the federal offence group categories.

        Note that prior to 2019–20, the category 'Commonwealth sexual offences' included sexual offences against a minor. These offences have now been included in the new ‘Child sexual abuse offences’ category, which is an expansion and re-labelling of the previous ‘Child sexual exploitation offences’ category. 

        The principal federal offence group for the defendant (based on the legislation), is the category associated with the principal federal offence (based on the ANZSOC). Where there is more than one federal offence group associated with an offence, the hierarchy of the NOI is used to derive the most serious group.

        Principal sentence

        The principal federal sentence is the most serious sentence given to a defendant for their federal offences with guilty outcomes. For ease of reading, the term is abbreviated to principal sentence throughout this publication.

        The determination of most serious sentence is based on the hierarchy of the Sentence Type Classification. This classification describes the types of sentences that are handed down by the court for offences with a guilty outcome, including the main categories of:

        • Custodial orders – sentences that restrict the liberty of a defendant for a specified period of time (e.g. detainment in an institution or home, or regular supervision by corrections personnel while residing in the community)
        • Non-custodial orders – sentences that do not involve being held in custody (e.g. fines, community service orders, good behaviour bonds).

        Defendants can receive:

        • A single sentence for a single offence with a guilty outcome
        • A single sentence for multiple offences with a guilty outcome
        • Multiple sentences for a single offence with a guilty outcome
        • Multiple sentences for multiple offences with a guilty outcome.

        In some cases, defendants with a method of finalisation of 'not guilty by reason of mental illness/condition' may have some kind of sentence/order imposed. However, these sentences are not included in this collection.

        Defendants with more than one sentence type (for either a single offence or multiple offences) are assigned a principal sentence, which is intended to reflect the most serious sentence based on the hierarchy of the Sentence Type Classification.

        In most cases, the principal sentence will be associated with the principal federal offence (that is, the most serious sentence handed down for the most serious offence). However, because the principal sentence is assigned independently of offence information, it is possible for this not to be the case (i.e. where the most serious offence with a guilty outcome has not incurred the most serious/largest sentence). There may also be cases where the sentence is for more than one offence (the principal federal offence and one or more other offences).

        It should also be noted that there are some differences in the availability and application of sentence types across states and territories, and over time.


        This ‘duration’ information presented is a measure of court timeliness, representing the time taken between the date a defendant’s case(s) was initiated in court and the date they were finalised (i.e. ceased to be an item of work for the court).

        Note that duration data for New South Wales and the Northern Territory are derived on a different basis (see ‘State and territory comparability’).

        Age of defendant

        The age in years presented in this collection refers to the age of the defendant at the date their matter(s) was finalised in the criminal courts.

        State and territory comparability

        National standards and classifications are used in this collection to produce nationally comparable data. However, various factors can impact data quality and comparability, including:

        • Challenges with meeting national standards due to courts data systems being designed for the purpose of administration of court business (as opposed to national statistical purposes)
        • Modification over time to data systems and methodology used to extract/compile data
        • Refinements to data quality procedures
        • Legislative or operational differences across states and territories (e.g. differences in the types of matters able to be heard, and the sentencing options available to the courts).

        The Federal Defendants collection presents a subset of all defendants finalised in Australia's criminal courts, as published in Criminal Courts, Australia. However, a federal defendant may also be finalised for state or territory offences in the same reference period, so the difference between all defendants and federal defendants does not equal the count of defendants with state/territory offences.

        The data in this publication may not be comparable to data published in other national and state/territory publications due to differing scope and counting rules.

        The following information highlights events or processes unique to a state or territory that may have impacted on the data for the Federal Defendants collection. Where a state or territory is not listed below, there are no specific notes for that state or territory for this release. For other issues specific to a state or territory that have impacted on the Criminal Courts collection more generally, refer to ‘State and territory specific information’ in the Methodology of Criminal Courts, Australia.

        New South Wales

        Duration data for the Magistrates' and Children's Courts are based on the date of first appearance rather than the date of registration, as date of registration is not captured in the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research's system (from which New South Wales courts data are derived). As such, the median duration in New South Wales Magistrates’ and Children’s Courts may be lower than in some other states and territories. This issue does not impact the Higher Courts data.

        Northern Territory

        Unlike other states and territories, the date of initiation in Magistrates’ and Children’s Courts in the Northern Territory is based on the earliest of: the date the case was filed, the date the case was created, or the date of first appearance.

        Australian Capital Territory

        The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) historically had a high proportion of defendants with a principal federal offence of Traffic and vehicle regulatory offences compared with most other states and territories. This was due to parking offences being lodged under commonwealth legislation specific to the Australian National University. During 2019-20 a significant amount of these offences were lodged under the ACT Road Transport (Road Rules) Regulation which is outside the scope of the Federal Defendants collection, resulting in a decrease in the number of federal defendants in the ACT. 

        Method of finalisation classification

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        Australian and New Zealand Standard Offence Classification (ANZSOC)

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        Federal offence group

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        Sentence type classification

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