Structure of the criminal courts in Australia
There is a hierarchy of criminal courts at both the Commonwealth and the State or Territory levels:
- Magistrates' courts: a lower court level that deals with relatively minor or summary criminal offences. Under some circumstances, this court may also deal with less serious indictable offences. They are also responsible for conducting preliminary (committal) hearings for indictable offences.
- Intermediate (district/county) courts: a higher court level that, together with the supreme court, deals with the more serious crimes. These courts hear the majority of cases involving indictable crimes.
- Supreme courts: the highest level of court within a State or Territory. They deal with the most serious crimes.
Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory do not have intermediate courts and all relevant charges are dealt with at the supreme courts. In States with both supreme and intermediate courts, a large majority of charges are decided at the intermediate courts.
All State, Territory and Commonwealth courts handle a number of matters that appear in the court system for the first time. 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 not yet available in Australia. However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes a limited amount of statistics on defendants whose cases were initiated and finalised at higher 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 and civil cases are also heard.)
In addition, for the last few years the Industry Commission has produced statistics on the number of lodgments at each court level.
The criminal court process
Cases passing through the courts generally share the following common elements:
- lodgment: the initiation of the matter with the court;
- pre-trial discussion and mediation between the parties;
- trial; and
- court decision: judgment or verdict followed by sentencing.
The largest number of lodgments is processed by magistrates' courts in their criminal jurisdictions.
- Over 1.7 million cases were initiated in magistrates' courts in 1997-98. These cases accounted for 98.2% of all lodgments in the criminal courts.
- Only 1.5% (27 400) of cases were initiated in the intermediate courts and 0.3% (5 100) of cases in the supreme courts.
- 66% of the criminal matters initiated in magistrates' courts were of a minor nature.
- There has been a 21% increase in the number of lodgments received by courts throughout Australia since 1994-95.
Hearings, particularly full court hearings and trials, are the primary cost driver for court administrations. Hearings encompass court trials in the criminal and civil jurisdictions, as well as inquests and inquiries in the coronial jurisdiction.
- Nationally, there were approximately 543 000 court hearings in 1997-98, 390 783 of a criminal nature.
- The majority of criminal hearings (93%) took place in the magistrates' courts.
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 the disputes and prosecutions heard are less complex than those in higher courts, and cases are of a routine or minor nature.
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 often held in custody pending a committal hearing or trial if ordered. The timely conduct of the committal hearing is therefore important for timely adjudication of the charges against the defendant.
Figure 35 shows the percentage of committal (criminal) matters finalised in magistrates' courts in 1997-98.
- On average, 59% of committal hearings in 1997-98 were finalised within three months of the receipt of charges by the court, and a further 26% were finalised in the subsequent three months.
Figure 36 shows the percentage of non-appeal criminal matters finalised within six and 12 months of lodgment, in the magistrates', intermediate and supreme courts.
- Magistrates' courts finalised at least 96% of criminal cases within six months in 1997-98.
- The intermediate courts had the lowest percentage of non-appeal criminal matters finalised within six months (68%), with a further 19% finalised in the following six months.
Appeals from lower courts are predominantly heard by the district courts and supreme courts of the States and Territories. The full bench of the federal court also hears appeals from a single federal court justice.
Figure 37 shows the percentage of appeal matters finalised in supreme/federal courts in 1997-98.
- On average, 60% of criminal appeals were finalised within six months.
- A further 28% were finalised in the subsequent six months.
Source: Reference 7
In the main, defendants' cases are finalised at the higher courts in one of the following two ways:
- adjudicated: determined whether or not guilty of the charges based on the judges decision; and
- non-adjudicated: a method of determining the completion of a case, thereby making it effectively inactive.
Figure 38 shows the percentage of defendants' cases finalised in the intermediate and supreme courts in 1997-98, by the method of finalisation.
A defendant is a person or corporation who has been charged before a court with a criminal offence(s) and brought before the court to face the charge(s).
Defendants finalised refers to defendants who had a final outcome for all charges in the higher courts.
- In 1997-98 there were 16 406 defendants finalised in the higher courts. This represented an increase of 4.8% on 1996-97, when 15 657 defendants were finalised.
- Overall, 77% of the accused persons whose cases were heard by a higher court were found guilty of an offence.
- In only 8% of cases was the defendant acquitted of an offence.
Figure 39 shows the number of male and female defendants in each age category whose cases were finalised in 1997-98.
- There is a vast difference in the number of males and females appearing before the higher courts. In all age groups males were more highly represented than females.
- The highest number of defendants, both male and female, was in the 15-24 age group.
Source: Reference 8
There is a variety of sentencing options available at each court level:
- good behaviour bond
- probation order
- suspended sentence
- community supervision
- community custody
- home detention
- periodic detention
At present there are no national figures on the number of persons sentenced in each particular category.