Structure of criminal courts in Australia
There is a hierarchy of criminal courts at both the Commonwealth and State or Territory levels.
- Magistrate's Court: A lower court level 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 level that, together with the Supreme Court, deals with the 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.
Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory do not have Intermediate Courts; all relevant charges are dealt with at their respective Supreme Courts. In States with both Supreme and Intermediate Courts, a large 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. Almost all criminal charges are lodged for the first time at the Magistrate's Court level.
National statistics on charges, trials and sentencing of suspects at all levels of court 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, in recent 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.
Most lodgments are processed by a Magistrate's Court in their criminal jurisdictions.
- Cases initiated in Magistrates' Courts accounted for 98.1% of all lodgments in the criminal courts.
- Only 1.6% (26 179) of cases were initiated in the Intermediate Courts and 0.3% (5 246) of cases in the Supreme Courts.
Source: Reference 7.
- 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 1 127 709 court hearings in 1999-2000.
- Of these hearings, 61% were of a criminal nature.
- The majority of criminal hearings (96%) took place in Magistrate's Court.
Source: Reference 7.
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.
- On average, 49% of committal hearings in 1999-2000 were finalised within three months of the receipt of charges by the court and a further 33% were finalised in the subsequent three months.
- Six per cent fewer cases were finalised within three months, while 3% more cases were finalised between three and six months in 1999-2000, compared to the previous year.
- In 1999-2000, Magistrates' Courts finalised 92% of criminal cases in less than six months and a further 5% between six and 12 months.
- Intermediate and Supreme Courts finalised about 60% of matters in less than six months, with a further 20% finalised between six and 12 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.
- On average, 52% of criminal appeals were finalised within six months in 1999-2000.
- A further 33% were finalised in the subsequent six months.
- There has been an increase in the percentage of appeal matters finalised after at least six months, in 1999-2000 compared to 1998-1999.
- In 1999-2000, almost half (48%) of the appeal matters heard were finalised after at least six months, compared to 37% in 1998-1999.
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 judge's decision; and
- non-adjudicated - a method of determining the completion of a case thereby making it effectively inactive.
* Excludes Queensland defendants finalised by a bench warrant being issued.
- In 1999-2000 there were 18 890 defendants finalised in the higher courts. This represented an increase of 3% on 1998-1999, when 18 426 defendants were finalised.
- Overall, 77% of the defendants 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.
- In all age groups, males are far more likely to appear before a higher court than females.
- The highest number of defendants, both male and female, occurred in the 20-24 age group. This pattern reflects offending patterns for both males and females.
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; and
At present there are no national figures on the number of persons sentenced in each particular category.
Source: Reference 7.