Getting to Court | The Victorian Courts System | Criminal Law | Navigating the Court Process
This article is an introduction to the Victorian Criminal Law Court system. It is not intended as legal advice.
So you have been charged. You are not sure where to go for assistance or what it all means.
Attending court can be stressful and confusing. It will affect your future. It is important to have the right advice and the right experts navigating you through the process. You have a right to a fair trial and to have an experienced advocate representing you.
You need to make sure you fully understand the court process and the charges against you before attending court. You should consult a qualified criminal lawyer in order to achieve the best possible result for your matter.
When do you have to go to Court?
If you have been charged with a criminal offence you will need to attend court. You will know if you have been charged if you have been given a Notice to Attend, a Charge Sheet or a Charge Sheet and Summons.
If you are charged with a criminal offence you can plead either guilty or not guilty. How you plead will affect how you proceed through the court system.
Magistrates’ Court of Victoria
All criminal matters will start in the Magistrates’ Court. The Magistrates’ Court hears summary offences (less serious offences) and indictable offences (more serious offences) tried summarily. This means that if you are charged with an indictable offence you may have the option to plead guilty and have the matter heard in the Magistrates’ Court rather than in a higher court. This could be preferable, as you may be looking at a more severe penalty if found guilty in a higher court. This is something that can be discussed with your lawyer.
The Mention is the first court hearing that you will have if you have been charged with a summary offence. If you plead guilty to the charges against you, your matter will be determined by the Magistrate at this hearing.
If you intend to contest the charge, you will need to notify the Court that you are pleading not guilty. At this stage of the proceedings you may have a Summary Case Conference with the prosecutors to negotiate the charges and your plea.
If you choose not to plead guilty at the Mention, the Magistrate may set a Contest Mention. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether there can be any negotiation between the prosecution and defence facilitated by the Magistrate.
The Summary Hearing is the final hearing if you are pleading not guilty to a summary offence charge. Both the prosecution and defence will present their arguments and evidence at this hearing. The Magistrate will then make a determination and, if you are found guilty, state the penalty to be imposed.
It is important to remember that there is an automatic right of appeal in the Magistrates’ Court. This means that should you wish to have your matter heard again by a higher and more specialised court, such as the County Court, you have an automatic right to do this.
Any matter involving an accused person who is younger than 18 years of age will be heard in the Children’s Court.
If you have been charged with a more serious indictable offence to be listed in the County or Supreme Court, your matter will first be listed for a Filing Hearing. This is where the Magistrate will set a timeframe for the exchange of information and evidence between the prosecution and defence. Bail applications will also be lodged at this stage if required.
A Committal Mention is the next step. It is the preliminary hearing before the Committal Hearing. Matters disputed between the parties will be discussed and witnesses may be cross-examined with the permission of the Magistrate. The Magistrate will then set a date for the Committal Hearing. If you decide to plead guilty at this stage the Magistrate may also hear and determine the charges for which you are pleading guilty.
All criminal matters listed for trial in the Supreme and County Courts will be heard at a Committal Hearing first. Here, the Magistrate can decide whether there is enough evidence presented by the prosecution to have a reasonable chance of a guilty finding at trial. If the Court finds that there is enough evidence the matter will be set down for trial. If the Court finds that there is not enough evidence then the matter will not continue and you will be free to leave without conviction. This is the last hearing in the Magistrates’ Court before the matter is listed in the County or Supreme Court.
County Court of Victoria
The County Court deals with more serious matters than the Magistrates’ Court but less serious matters than the Supreme Court. Examples are dangerous driving and burglary charges.
Matters are listed for trial in the County Court after a Committal Hearing in the Magistrates’ Court. The trial is heard by a Judge and jury. The prosecution presents all of the evidence and the jury decides whether on the balance of probabilities you are guilty or not guilty. If the jury finds you guilty, the Judge will then determine an appropriate penalty.
It is the role of the Judge to guide the jury through the case and in their assessment of the evidence. The Judge will usually summarise the evidence and the relevant law for the jury before they make their decision.
Appeals from the County Court are heard in the Court of Appeal.
Supreme Court of Victoria
The Supreme Court is the highest Victorian court and therefore deals with the most serious criminal trials such as murder and treason.
Much like the County Court, matters will be listed in the Supreme Court after a Committal Hearing in the Magistrates’ Court. The trial will be heard by a Judge and jury. After hearing all the evidence presented the jury will make a finding of guilty or not guilty. If you are found guilty then the Judge will determine the penalty.
Appeals from the Supreme Court are heard in the Appeals division of the Supreme Court.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal is a division of the Supreme Court and hears matters appealed from the trial division of the Supreme Court or the County Court. The appeal is usually heard by three Judges.
Federal Court of Australia
High Court of Australia
The High Court of Australia is Australia’s ultimate appeal court. The High Court hears appeals by special leave from the Supreme Court. A special application has to be made to have an appeal heard at the High Court.