Prosecutions in the Local Court
Why some serious crimes are dealt with in the Local Court
Nearly all criminal cases start off in the Local Court before a magistrate.
Under NSW law, many have to be committed (transferred) to the District Court and the most severe cases (such as murder) to the Supreme Court. Some serious crimes (for example, armed robbery, or dangerous driving causing death) can be prosecuted in either the Local Court or the District Court.
Prosecutions in the Local Court are less complex than those in the higher courts, and are usually a lot faster. This has obvious benefits – victims and other witnesses have the stress of a court case for a shorter time, and there is less strain on the criminal justice system. However, there are limits on the penalties the Local Court can impose. For example, the maximum prison sentence it can give an offender for a single offence is two years and for multiple offences, five years.
For these reasons, when the ODPP can prosecute a serious crime in the Local Court we will usually do so, as long as the likely penalty is within the range it can impose.
The accused will be asked to plead the first time they appear in the Local Court.
If the plea is 'not guilty', there will be a hearing. The magistrate will adjourn the matter – usually for six weeks – so the ODPP can provide the accused’s lawyer with a copy of the evidence in the case. The evidence, called a ‘brief’, will usually include victim and witness statements, results of forensic tests, such as blood alcohol tests, and, if relevant, photos or maps of the scene of the incident.
The next time the matter is before the court, the magistrate will set the hearing date. However, it’s important to know that this date could change as Local Court hearings are often delayed or adjourned. Reasons for this include witnesses not being available; courts not being available; the accused not having a lawyer, or changing their lawyer; the accused needing to be assessed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist; or the police or ODPP waiting on crucial evidence.
The ODPP will let you know if we find out that a hearing date or time has changed.
Domestic violence matters have a different timetable, so they can be dealt with quickly. The accused has to be served with a ‘mini-brief’ soon after being charged and will be asked to plead the first time they appear in court. If they plead ‘not guilty’ the hearing date is set. If the plea is ‘guilty’, the magistrate will usually begin the sentencing process straight away.
Local Court criminal hearings follow the same path as trials in the District or Supreme Court, but there is no jury. The main steps are:
- The ODPP (the prosecution) makes an opening statement about the case (called a ‘submission’).
- The accused’s lawyer (the defence) may also make an opening submission.
- The prosecution calls its witnesses.
- The first prosecution witness gives his or her evidence-in-chief, then is cross-examined by the defence. The prosecution may then re-examine the witness, and the judge may also ask some questions. The other prosecution witnesses then give their evidence, following the same process (see On the day: Going to court and giving evidence).
- The defence calls its witnesses, who go through the same pattern of evidence-in-chief, cross-examination and re-examination. The accused does not have to give evidence but if they are going to it will be at this point, as a witness for the defence.
- The prosecution makes a closing address.
- The defence makes a closing address.
- The magistrate may adjourn to have more time to consider all the evidence and arguments.
- The magistrate announces the verdict.
- If it is ‘guilty’, the magistrate will sentence the accused (see below). Sentencing will usually start straight after the verdict, but it could be later so reports / character references can be prepared.
- If the verdict is ‘not guilty’, the accused is free to go.
If the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty in the Local Court, the magistrate will sentence them. The sentencing process will usually start straight after a guilty verdict, and often straight after a guilty plea.
The prosecution will hand the magistrate the police facts sheet, the offender’s criminal record and / or traffic record and any other relevant documents, such as photos of the victim’s injuries or of property damage. (If the offender was found guilty after a hearing, the magistrate will already have this information.) The defence will usually hand up written character references, psychological / psychiatric reports, and relevant medical reports.
The magistrate will often want what is called a ‘pre-sentence report’ on whether there are sentencing options available other than fulltime prison, such as compulsory drug treatment detention. If the defence hasn’t provided this report, or there is another report the magistrate wants, the matter will be adjourned. Adjournments can be for up to six weeks if the magistrate asks for a detailed pre-sentence report; less detailed pre-sentence reports can sometimes be ready within a day.
Victim impact statements
If there is no adjournment and you are making a victim impact statement (VIS), the prosecution will hand it to the magistrate. You can also read it aloud if you want to, or have someone read it for you. VISs aren’t available in all serious matters dealt with in the Local Court, so if you would like to make one, talk to the prosecutor as early as possible about whether you will be able to and what you can say.
If you choose not to make a VIS, the court will not take this as meaning that you did not suffer harm from the crime.
Deciding on the sentence
The magistrate will then hear from the defence about factors that could affect the sentence. These can include, for example, the offender’s background, personal circumstances, rehabilitation prospects, family responsibilities, work situation, prospects for the future, and their plea. (Like other courts, the Local Court gives sentence discounts – of up to 25 per cent – for guilty pleas. This recognises that victims and other witnesses have been spared from having to give evidence and that the court has been saved the time and expense of a hearing. Guilty pleas can also be taken as a sign of remorse.)
The magistrate will sometimes ask the defence questions, speak to the offender directly, or ask the prosecution for its view on sentencing options.
In some matters the magistrate will hand down the sentence straight after hearing from the parties, but sentencing is complex and it will often be later. (See How does the court decide on a sentence? in Sentencing for all the factors the magistrate will take into account.)
The accused can appeal to the District Court against:
- being found guilty (convicted)
- their sentence
- their conviction and sentence.
The ODPP can appeal against the sentence if we believe it is too light, but we can’t appeal against a not guilty verdict.
Appeals from the Local Court have to be lodged within 28 days.
For more information, see Appeals to the District Court.
Most, but not all, serious criminal cases in the Local Court end with a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
Some other ways a matter can end include with the ODPP deciding not to continue prosecuting. If this happens, the magistrate will discharge the accused, meaning they will be free to go. Reasons why we sometimes make this decision include that the victim doesn’t want to proceed; there is not enough evidence against the accused; or continuing isn’t in the public interest (see Discontinuing prosecutions in the ODPP's Prosecution Guidelines). The ODPP prosecutor will always consult with the victim and the police officer in charge if we are considering not continuing with a case. Victims who disagree with an ODPP decision can make a complaint to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Sometimes, it will be the magistrate who decides that the evidence against the accused isn’t strong enough. Again, this will result in the accused being discharged.
If there are genuine questions about the accused’s mental health or capacity, the magistrate can make orders for their treatment and care instead of dealing with them in the ordinary way under criminal law (see Crimes involving mental illness or impairment).