In criminal matters, almost everyone starts off in the Magistrates Court. They deal with simple offences from littering and speeding fines to more serious ones like burglary, assault and drug related matters. For the really serious offences like rape, murder or armed robbery, the Magistrate may be asked to assess if there is sufficient evidence for the offence before referring it to a higher court. There are no juries in the Magistrates’ Court, so the single judge (the Magistrate) decides penalties and assesses evidence.
When appearing in the Magistrates Court, how the first appearance proceeds will depend on the offence committed. For simple offences, the defendant or their lawyer will be asked whether they plead guilty or not guilty in response to the charge/s read out. There are three responses to this:
- Firstly, if they plead guilty, a penalty will be decided by the Magistrate.
- Secondly, they may apply for an adjournment if they need more time to consider their position and the Magistrate will set a date for the matter to be mentioned again.
- Finally, they may plead not guilty, whereby the Magistrate will set a date for a summary hearing.
At the summary hearing, witnesses from both parties will be examined and subject to the evidence provided the Magistrate will either throw the case out (not sufficient evidence and the defendant is not guilty) or set a date for a sentence hearing (sufficient evidence for the defendant to be found guilty). At the sentence hearing, the Magistrate will determine the penalty for the defendant.
Another type of hearing that occurs in the Magistrates Court is a committal hearing. This is where a serious offence has been committed and the Magistrate must decide if there is enough evidence for the case to be referred to a higher court.