Federal Defendants, Australia

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Statistics about defendants with federal offences dealt with by the Higher, Magistrates' and Children's criminal courts

Reference period
2019-20 financial year

Key statistics

  • 7,627 federal defendants were finalised in 2019–20, down 19% from 2018–19
  • 79% of federal defendants finalised were male
  • Harassment and threatening behaviour remained the most common principal federal offence (46%)
  • Fines were the most common principal sentence (34% of defendants with a guilty outcome).

Impact of COVID-19

The introduction of COVID-19 related restrictions in March 2020 affected the volume of defendants finalised in Australian courts. Court operations were affected by the temporary closures in courts across all jurisdictions and the deferral of some cases. The restrictions also coincided with a fall in the number of offenders proceeded against by police for the same crime period which likely reduced the number of court cases. This should be considered when interpreting the federal defendants data for the 2019–20 reference period, and when comparing to earlier years.

Counting methodology

This release presents data related to defendants charged with an offence against Commonwealth legislation, who were finalised within an Australian criminal court in 2019–20. The data is a subset of the Criminal Courts, Australia collection.

The counting unit is a finalised defendant (see Glossary in Methodology). Unless otherwise specified, the numbers below exclude defendants finalised by transfer between court levels. 

Summary of findings

There were 7,627 federal defendants finalised in 2019–20, a decrease of 19% (1,806) from the previous year.

This represents around 2% of total defendants finalised (469,208) in Australia’s state and territory criminal courts over the same period, as reported in Criminal Courts, Australia, 2019–20.

The proportion of federal defendants by sex remained relatively stable in 2019–20.

  1. Includes defendants of any sex, organisations, and defendants for whom sex was unknown.

Summary characteristics relating to federal defendants finalised are presented below.

Federal defendants finalised, Summary characteristics, 2019–20

DemographicsDefendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Median age38 Years 
Court levelDefendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Magistrates' Court6,46385% 
Higher Court 90512%
Children's Court2543% 
Top 3 Principal Offences – ANZSOC (a)Defendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Harassment and threatening behaviour3,46146% 
Offences against government operations78010% 
Obtain benefit by deception6959%
Method of finalisationDefendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Guilty outcome5,55167% 
Withdrawn by prosecution1,70420%
Transferred to other court levels7028% 
Principal SentenceDefendants with guilty outcome (no.)Defendants with guilty outcome (%)
Custodial orders1,27223%
Custody in a correctional institution90316% 
Custody in the community 1994%
Fully suspended sentences1663% 
Non-custodial orders4,27577% 
Community supervision and work orders4598%
Monetary orders2,04937% 
Other non-custodial orders (b) 1,76232% 
  1. Australian and New Zealand Standard Offence Classification (ANZSOC). See Methodology for full classification.
  2. Includes good behaviour bond/recognisance orders, licence disqualification/suspension/amendment, forfeiture of property order, nominal penalty and other non-custodial orders n.e.c.

Principal federal offence

The most common principal federal offence in 2019–20 was harassment and threatening behaviour (46%, 3,461 defendants). The number of defendants with this offence has increased since 2010–11. 

During 2019–20, most defendants with this principal federal offence were classified to the federal offence group 'communications' (see Methodology for further detail), indicating that the harassment and/or threatening behaviour occurred via carriage services (for example mobile phone or internet).

Harassment and threatening behaviour, Summary characteristics, 2019–20
DemographicsDefendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Median age36 years 
Principal SentenceDefendants with guilty outcome (no.) Defendants with guilty outcome (%)
Custodial orders41017%
Custody in a correctional institution29312%
Fully suspended sentences422%
Non-custodial orders (a)1,98783%
Community supervision and work orders23410%
Monetary orders63727%
Other non-custodial orders (b)1,11747%
Total guilty outcome (a)2,393100%
  1. Due to perturbation, component cells may not add to published totals (see Methodology).
  2. Includes good behaviour bond/recognisance orders, licence disqualification/suspension/amendment, forfeiture of property order, nominal penalty and other non-custodial orders n.e.c.

Principal sentence

Of the 5,551 federal defendants with a guilty outcome in 2019–20:

  • The most common principal sentence was a monetary order (37% or 2,049 federal defendants)
  • Most monetary orders involved a fine (1,901 defendants)
  • A further 32% (1,762) were sentenced to other non-custodial orders such as a good behaviour bond, licence disqualification or forfeiture of property
  • 903 (16%) were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution.
  1. Includes good behaviour bond/recognisance orders, licence disqualification/suspension/amendment, forfeiture of property orders, nominal penalty and other non-custodial orders n.e.c.

Defendants with a guilty outcome for the following principal offences had the greatest proportions sentenced to a monetary order:

  • Commercial, industry or financial regulations (88% or 227)
  • Offences against government operations (77% or 491).

Import or export illicit drugs offences had the greatest proportion of defendants sentenced to custody in a correctional institution (87% or 158).

States and territories

There was a decrease in the number of federal defendants finalised in all states and territories during 2019–20 except for the Northern Territory, which increased by 24% (20 defendants).

The largest numerical decreases occurred in:

  • Victoria (down 728 or 24%)
  • Queensland (down 558 or 30%)
  • The Australian Capital Territory (down 205 or 47%).

The decrease in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory was mostly due to a reduction in finalisations for federal traffic and vehicle regulatory offences (specifically parking offences). In Queensland, the largest decreases occurred for offences against government operations (down 138 or 37%) and harassment and threatening behaviour (down 137 or 25%).

A monetary order was the most common principal federal sentence across most states and territories, ranging from 72% in Western Australia (271) to 38% in Victoria (596).

Data downloads

Guide to finding data in the federal defendants publication tables

Federal defendants, Australia (Tables 1 to 4)

Federal defendants, Federal Offence Group, Australia (Tables 5 to 7)

Previous catalogue number

This release previously used catalogue number 4515.0.

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