Going to trial in the Magistrates Court

When you elect to plead not guilty to a criminal offence that is able to be dealt with in the lower court, your matter will proceed to trial in the Magistrates Court. Hearings in these courts are conducted before a Magistrate. There is no jury.

A significant amount of preparation is required when a criminal case goes to Trial. Your matter will proceed through a case conferencing process to see if there are any areas of common ground (to lessen the areas of dispute at trial) before a full brief of evidence is provided by the Prosecuting authority. Your lawyer will need to obtain your instructions, examine the prosecution’s evidence against you, research and obtain case law on any areas of dispute, obtain witness statements and specialised reports if necessary. There will be a number of mentions that your Lawyer will be required to attend so that the Court can be informed of the progress and that all witnesses and experts required to give evidence, will be present on the Trial Date.

Before your trial, there will be conferences between you and your lawyer (and Barrister is you have one), to discuss the evidence and confirm your instructions. Whether or not you should give evidence at trial will be discussed and also what witnesses will be required. It is important to remember that you cannot be forced to give evidence in your own defence – it is entirely your choice and one that will be discussed with you in detail. At trial, the onus is on the prosecuting authority to prove guilt, not for defence to prove innocence.

In the larger Magistrates Court, your trial will be first mentioned in an allocation Court before being sent to a particular Court so that the Trial can commence. Unfortunately, Magistrates Court are very busy and it may be that your matter will be behind other matters also being heard on that day.

Once the trial starts, the Prosecution commences their case against you. This involves the Prosecutor call each of the Prosecution witnesses.

A witness for the prosecution is firstly questioned by the Prosecutor. This is called giving your evidence in chief. Once completed, the your Defence Lawyer or Barrister asks questions (cross-examination). If necessary, the Prosecutor may elect to ask further questions of the witness (examination).

Once the Prosecutor has finished calling witnesses, there may be some legal submissions to be made by your Lawyer or Barrister. Then, it is your opportunity to call or give evidence. If you elect not to call or give evidence, then your matter will proceed to closing addresses with the Prosecutor going first.

If you do elect to call or give evidence, then a similar process applies. Each witness will be first question by your Defence Lawyer or Barrister (evidence in chief). Once completed, the witness will be asked questions by the Prosecutor (cross-examined). If necessary, further questions will then be asked by your Defence Lawyer or Barrister (re-examination). At the conclusion of the defence witness, the closing addresses will occur. This time the defence lawyer or barrister goes first and the prosecutor follows.

Usually the Magistrate then adjourns to consider the matter. This adjournment could be for minutes, or hours but also sometimes for weeks or months if the Magistrate requires time to research the law and wants to deliver his or her reasons in writing.

If the Magistrate determines that you are not guilty, you are immediately discharged from the offence/s. If however you are found guilty, the matter then proceeds to sentencing.

During sentencing, the Prosecutor and your Defence Lawyer or Barrister will make submissions to the Magistrate regarding what penalty should be imposed before the Magistrate passes sentence for the offences.

It is the general rule that a heavier penalty will be imposed following a guilty verdict at Trial than if you pleaded guilty at an earlier opportunity. The Courts are expected to reduce a sentence on a guilty plea to recognise the co-operation and remorse expressed by the Defendant and for not making the Prosecution incur the expense of conducting a trial.

What is the Magistrates Court?

According Queensland Courts guidelines, the Magistrates Court is the first level of the Queensland Courts system and where most civil and criminal cases are first heard.

An individual charged with a criminal offence must be brought before the Magistrates Court as a soon as is possible charges are laid, where the magistrate decides if there is enough evidence for the person to face trial and, if so, in which court .

The Magistrates Court can itself deal with less serious offences (summary offences) such as traffic infringements, minor offences such as shoplifting or disorderly behaviour, and less serious offences involving burglary, assault, fraud and drugs. It can also deal with Civil cases if the amount in dispute is $150,000 or less.

The Magistrates Court also deals with most domestic violence matters as well as applications for child-protection orders.

What about my legal expenses?

The general principle of the criminal law is that persons are not entitled to compensation or reimbursement even after being found not guilty.

(Likewise, you usually do not have to pay court costs or the legal fees of the prosecution if you lose).

There are limited circumstances where a Magistrate can make a costs order after a summary hearing. A costs order may cover some or all of your costs and will depend upon a number of factors. If you are assisted by your Defence Lawyer or Barrister pursuant to a grant from Legal Aid, then any legal expenses recovered will be paid directly to that agency.

Following Trial

Strict time frames apply should you wish to appeal your conviction and/or your sentence. Your Defence Lawyer will give you a recommendation as to whether you should appeal and the prospects of a successful appeal.

The Prosecution also has the ability to appeal in certain circumstances, including if the penalty imposed was too lenient. In either case there is a strict one month appeal period in which to appeal, otherwise your ability to appeal is lost forever. If you wish to appeal, then you should engage a Lawyer to do so immediately.

Please note: this publication is designed to provide a simple overview and should not be relied upon instead of legal advice.