Australian Institute of Criminology

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Criminal courts

There is a hierarchy of criminal courts at both the federal and state/territory levels.

Magistrates court
a lower court that deals with relatively minor or summary criminal offences. Under some circumstances, these courts may also deal with less serious indictable offences. They are also responsible for conducting preliminary (committal) hearings for indictable offences.
Intermediate (district/county) court
a higher court that, together with the supreme court, deals with more serious crimes. Intermediate courts hear the majority of cases involving indictable crimes.
Supreme court
the highest level of court within a state or territory. Supreme courts deal with the most serious crimes.

Minor criminal offences are called summary offences and major offences are called indictable offences. Indictable offences normally require a trial by judge and jury.

Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory do not have intermediate courts; all relevant charges are dealt with by their respective supreme courts. In states with both supreme and intermediate courts, a majority of charges are decided at the intermediate court level.

All state, territory and Commonwealth courts handle a number of matters that appear in the court system for the first time, although almost all criminal charges are lodged for the first time at the magistrates court level.

National statistics on charges, trials and sentencing of suspects at all levels of courts are now available from the ABS. The ABS publishes statistics on defendants whose cases were initiated and finalised in higher and magistrates criminal courts. Higher courts comprise those at the intermediate and supreme court levels, where defendants charged with serious or indictable offences are dealt with, and where appeals are also heard. ABS magistrates data do not include defendants finalised in children's courts, electronic courts, family violence courts, Koori courts or drug courts.

In addition, in recent years the Productivity Commission has produced statistics on the number of lodgments at each court level.

Criminal court data from both ABS and the Productivity Commission report on financial rather than calendar years.

Source: References 23 and 24

The criminal court process

Case flows

Cases passing through the courts generally share the following common elements:

  • lodgment - the initiation of the matter with the court;
  • pre-trial procedures (committal hearing or discussion and mediation between the parties);
  • trial; and
  • court decision - judgment or verdict followed by sentencing.

Source: References 23 and 24

Lodgments

Most lodgments are processed by the magistrates court in the relevant criminal jurisdiction.

In 2003-04, 777,162 cases were lodged in criminal courts in Australia. This figure excludes lodgments in electronic courts (1480,744 lodgments in the four jurisdictions which use them), and 19,844 lodgments in coroners courts.

Cases initiated in magistrates courts accounted for 95.9% of all lodgments in the criminal courts in 2003-04, while 3.5% were initiated in district/county courts and 0.6% in supreme courts.

Source: Reference 23

Timeliness

The duration between the lodgment of a matter with the court and its finalisation is referred to as timeliness. Generally, lower courts complete a greater proportion of their workload more quickly because cases are of a routine or minor nature. The disputes and prosecutions heard are usually less complex than those in higher courts.

Committals are the first stage of hearing indictable offences in the criminal justice system. A magistrate assesses the sufficiency of evidence presented against the defendant and decides whether to commit the matter for trial in a superior court. Defendants are held in custody pending a committal hearing or trial, or released on bail. The conduct of the committal hearing is important for timely adjudication of the charges against the defendant.

Figure 74 : Matters finalised in magistrates courts, duration from initiation to finalisation, by method of finalisation, percentages, 2003-04

Figure 74

  • On average, 74% of committal hearings in magistrates courts in 2003-04 were finalised within thirteen weeks of the receipt of charges by the court and a further 16% were finalised in the subsequent three months.
  • The percentage of cases requiring 52 weeks or more for finalisation was only 3%.
  • Cases where the defendant was acquitted tended to last longer than those where the defendant was proven guilty.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 75 : Matters finalised in higher courts, duration from initiation to finalisation, by method of finalisation, percentages, 2003-04

Figure 75

  • In 2003-04, 20% of matters finalised in higher courts lasted more than 52 weeks and 27% took less than 13 weeks to finalise.
  • Matters involving a guilty plea tend to take the shortest time to finalise. Cases which result in a guilty verdict tend to take the longest.

Source: Reference 24

Court decision

Cases are finalised at the courts in the following ways:

  • adjudicated - determined whether guilty of the charges based on the court judgment, or plea of guilty; and
  • non-adjudicated - occurs through a variety of means, including withdrawn by prosecution, unfit to plead, accused dies, diplomatic immunity, statute of limitations applies.

Figure 76 : Criminal cases finalised in magistrates courts, by method of finalisation, 2003-04 (a)(b)

Figure 76

(a) NSW refers to finalised appearances rather than defendants, resulting in possible over counting.

(b) NSW excludes defendants finalised by committal to a higher court.

(c) Includes both guilty plea and guilty verdict.

  • In 2003-04 there were 527,367 defendants finalised in the magistrates courts. Only 4% of these defendants were acquitted.
  • In 85% of cases defendants were proven guilty in the magistrates courts and only 2% were transferred to other court levels.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 77 : Criminal cases finalised in higher courts, by method of finalisation, 2003-04

Figure 77

  • In 2003-04 there were 17,315 defendants finalised in the higher courts. This represented an increase of 4% from 16,643 defendants in 2002-03.
  • Overall, 73% of the defendants whose cases were heard by a higher court pleaded guilty, and a further 8% were found guilty of an offence.
  • In 6% of cases the defendant was acquitted of an offence.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 78 : Adjudicated defendants in magistrates courts by age and gender, rate per 100,000 persons, 2003-04

Figure 78

  • In 2003-04, 20% of defendants in magistrates courts were female.
  • In all age groups males are much more likely than women to appear as defendants in court. This is relatively consistent with the gender profile of offenders.
  • For both males and females, individuals in the 20-24 and 25-34 age groups were much more likely to appear in court as defendants than those in the other age categories. This pattern reflects adult offending patterns shown in chapter 3.

Source: References 2 and 24

Figure 79 : Adjudicated defendants in higher courts by age and gender, rate per 100,000 persons, 2003-04

Figure 79

  • In the higher courts the highest rate of defendants per 100,000 population occurred in the 20 to 24 age group for both males and females.
  • Females are proportionately less likely than men to appear before higher courts compared with magistrates courts. Women made up 13% of defendants in higher courts and 20% in magistrates courts.

Source: References 2 and 24

Sentencing

Sentencing options available at each court level, include but are not limited to:

  • fine;
  • good behaviour bond;
  • probation order;
  • suspended sentence;
  • community supervision;
  • community custody;
  • home detention;
  • periodic detention; and
  • imprisonment.

Sentence types can be broadly divided into custodial and non-custodial sentences, or orders. A custodial order requires a person to have restricted liberty for a specified period of time either through detainment in a correctional facility or home, or being subject to regular supervision while in the community. Custodial orders include custody in a correctional institution, custody in the community, and suspended sentences.

Non-custodial orders are sentences imposed on the offender that do not involve being held in custody. They include community supervision or work orders, monetary orders and other non-custodial orders.

Sentencing data for adult offenders have been available since 2002-03 across the states and territories. The ABS is continuing to work towards a regular detailed sentencing collection for higher courts and magistrates courts.

Figure 80 : Defendants found guilty, by age and principal sentence, magistrates courts, 2003-04

Figure 80

(a) Includes custody in a correctional institution, custody in the community, and suspended sentence.

(b) Includes community supervision or work orders, monetary orders, and other non-custodial orders.

  • In magistrates courts 91% of all defendants found guilty are given non-custodial sentences, while the remaining 9% are given custodial sentences.
  • Defendants aged 25-34 are more likely to receive custodial sentences than defendants in other age groups.
  • In 2003-04, 12% of those defendants aged 25-34 and found guilty received custodial sentences, compared with only 4% of defendants aged under 20, 7% of those aged 45 and over and 9% of defendants aged 20-24.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 81 : Defendants found guilty, by age and principal sentence, higher courts, 2003-04

Figure 81

(a) Includes: custody in a correctional institution; custody in the community; and suspended sentence.

(b) Includes: community supervision or work orders; monetary orders; and other non-custodial orders.

  • Compared with magistrates courts, a much higher proportion of the defendants found guilty in higher courts received custodial sentences (78%). The remaining 12% received non-custodial sentences.
  • Defendants aged 24 and under found guilty were slightly less likely to receive custodial sentences than older counterparts.
  • 62% of those aged under 20, and 76% of those aged 20-24 received custodial sentences, compared with between 82 and 83% for all other categories.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 82 : Male defendants found guilty by principal sentence type, all courts, 2003-04

Figure 82

(a) Custody in the community includes intensive corrections orders, home detention, and other orders where liberty is restricted while living within the community.

  • In the majority of cases, the principal sentence handed down in magistrates courts for male offenders was for monetary orders such as a fine (70%).
  • Custody in a correctional institution accounted for only 7% of the total number of sentences in all courts in 2003-04.
  • Custody in the community occurred in only 1% of cases, while community supervision or work orders were issued in 5% of cases.
  • 4% of male defendants found guilty received fully suspended sentences.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 83 : Female defendants found guilty by principal sentence type, all courts, 2003-04

Figure 82

(a) Custody in the community includes intensive corrections orders, home detention and other orders where liberty is restricted while living within the community.

  • Custody in a correctional institution accounted for only 3% of principal sentences for female offenders in 2003-04.
  • Monetary orders were the most common sentence type (72%).
  • Custody in the community was the principal sentence in less than one half of one percent of cases involving female defendants found guilty.
  • Female defendants were issued with community supervision or work orders in 5% of cases, while fully suspended sentences were handed down in 3% of cases.

Source: Reference 24

Figure 84 : Defendants found guilty by principal sentence type and most serious offence, magistrates courts, percentages 2003-04

Figure 84

UEWI - Unlawful entry with intent.

AICI - Acts intended to cause injury.

GSJ - Offences against justice procedures, government security and government operations.

DNA - Dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons.

  • In magistrates courts the offences of UEWI and sexual assault had the highest percentage of defendants who received a custodial order, both over 40%.
  • The offence of dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons, and traffic related offences had the highest percentage of non-custodial monetary orders imposed on defendants (85% and 84%, respectively).

Source: Reference 24

Figure 85 : Defendants found guilty by principal sentence type and most serious offence, higher courts, percentages, 2003-04

Figure 85

UEWI - Unlawful entry with intent.

AICI - Acts intended to cause injury.

  • A custodial sentence was the most common sentence in higher courts for all offences.
  • Defendants found guilty of homicide, robbery or sexual assault in higher courts were overwhelmingly likely to receive a custodial sentence (87%, 79% and 72%, respectively).
  • Least likely to receive custodial sentences in higher courts were defendants found guilty of theft (46%), deception (50%), acts intended to cause injury (56%) and illicit drug offences (57%).
  • Defendants found guilty of theft, deception, acts intended to cause injury, and UEWI were more likely to receive non-monetary non-custodial orders than monetary ones.

Source: Reference 24