Prosecutions in the Local Court

Most serious criminal cases are prosecuted in the District or Supreme Court, but some can be dealt with in the Local Court.

Prosecutions in the Local Court are usually a lot faster than those in the higher courts, but there are limits on the penalties an offender can receive.

Juries don’t sit in the Local Court – cases are decided by the magistrate.

 

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.

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.