Federal Defendants, Australia

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National statistics about defendants with federal offences in criminal courts including demographic, offence, outcome and sentence information

Reference period
2020-21 financial year

Key statistics

  • 7,944 federal defendants were finalised in 2020–21, up 4% from 2019–20

  • Harassment and threatening behaviour remained the most common principal federal offence (49%)

  • The majority of defendants had a guilty outcome (66%)

  • Around one-third of defendants with a guilty outcome received a fine as their principal sentence (32%).

Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in restrictions being introduced in Australian states and territories from March 2020 which affected the volume of defendants finalised in criminal courts. This context should be considered when interpreting the Federal Defendants data for the 2020–21 and 2019–20 reference periods, and when comparing to earlier years.

Counting methodology

This publication presents data related to defendants charged with an offence against Commonwealth (federal) legislation, who were finalised in an Australian criminal court in 2020–21. 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 presented exclude defendants finalised by transfer between court levels. 

Summary of findings

There were 7,944 federal defendants finalised in 2020–21, an increase of 4% (317) from the previous year.

This represents around 2% of total defendants finalised (508,748) in Australia’s state and territory criminal courts over the same period, as reported in Criminal Courts, Australia, 2020–21.

The median age of federal defendants was 37 years and males continued to account for more than three-quarters (79%).

Most federal defendants adjudicated in criminal courts in 2020–21 had a guilty outcome (95%), and almost a third of those guilty received a fine (31%).

Summary characteristics of federal defendants, 2020–21

DemographicsDefendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Median age37 Years 
Court level (including transfers)Defendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Higher Courts8199
Magistrates' Court 7,70388
Children's Court2493
Top 4 Principal Offences – ANZSOC(a)Defendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Harassment and threatening behaviour3,87049
Obtain benefit by deception6468
Offences against government operations4295
Non-assaultive sexual offences4205
Adjudicated finalisationsDefendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Guilty outcome5,74995
Top 4 Principal Sentences(b)Defendants (no.)Defendants (%)
Good behaviour bonds/recognisance orders1,41425
Custody in a correctional institution81114
Community supervision or work orders5239
  1. Australian and New Zealand Standard Offence Classification (ANZSOC). See Methodology for full classification.
  2. Only applicable to defendants with a guilty outcome.

Principal federal offence

The most common principal federal offence was harassment and threatening behaviour (49%, 3,870 defendants). The number of defendants with this offence has more than doubled since 2010–11 (1,716), and most were classified to the 'communications' federal offence group, indicating that the harassment and/or threatening behaviour occurred via carriage services (for example mobile phone or internet).

The other most common principal federal offences in 2020–21 were:

  • obtain benefit by deception, such as identity fraud (646 defendants);
  • offences against government operations, such as taxation offences (429 defendants); and
  • non-assaultive sexual offences, such as the possession or distribution of child abuse material or grooming offences (420 defendants).
  1. Based on subdivisions of the Australian and New Zealand Standard Offence Classification (ANZSOC). See Methodology for full classification.

One in five female federal defendants had a principal offence of obtain benefit by deception (21%). This was one of the few federal offence types which had an even representation of male and female defendants.

In contrast, almost all defendants with a principal federal offence of non-assaultive sexual offences were male (99%).

Principal sentence

Of the 5,749 federal defendants in 2020–21 with a guilty outcome, 811 (14%) were sentenced to custody in a correctional institution. The majority of those with a guilty outcome were sentenced to a non-custodial order such as a fine (31%, 1,810), good behaviour bond (25%, 1,414) or community supervision or work order (9%, 523).

In 2020–21, two-thirds of defendants sentenced to a good behaviour bond had a principal offence of harassment and threatening behaviour (67% or 940).

Harassment and threatening behaviour also accounted for 258 defendants receiving a sentence of custody in correctional institution. Following this, the next highest number of defendants sentenced to imprisonment were defendants of non-assaultive sexual offences (156) and import or export illicit drugs (115).

States and territories

Between 2019–20 and 2020–21, there was an increase in the number of federal defendants finalised in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory.

The largest increases occurred in Queensland (up 305 or 23%) and New South Wales (up 272 or 9%). Most of the increase in both states was due to additional defendants with a principal offence of harassment and threatening behaviour.

Conversely Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory saw a decrease in the number of finalisations. The largest decrease occurred in Western Australia (down 169 or 38%). This was driven by a decrease in offences against government operations (down 108 or 62%), such as taxation offences.

Data downloads

Guide to finding data in the federal defendants publication tables

Federal defendants, Australia (Tables 1 to 6)

Federal defendants, Federal Offence Group, Australia (Tables 7 to 10)

Previous catalogue number

This release previously used catalogue number 4515.0.

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