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Pleading Guilty in the Magistrates Court (ACT)

When a person is charged with summary offences in the ACT, they are required to finalise the matter in the Magistrates Court (or in the Children’s Court if they are under 18). A person charged with summary offences in the ACT may wish to plead guilty or to contest the charges and go through a hearing. This article deals with pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court in the ACT.

Summary offences

Summary offences are offences that carry a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment or less. Summary offences are finalised by a magistrate, whereas indictable offences, which are more serious and carry longer penalties, are finalised in the higher courts.

Summary offences include traffic offences like drink driving and driving while disqualified as well as public disorder offences like disorderly and offensive behaviour. While it is possible to finalise a summary criminal matter on the first occasion a person attends court, it is not always advisable to do so.

Things to consider before pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court

Before a person finalises a matter by pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court, there are a number of things they should consider.

Are you actually guilty?

This may seem straightforward, but there may be more to it than you realise. You should not plead guilty to an offence unless you are certain that all the elements of the offence are made out. For some offences, this will involve a physical act (actus reus) and a mental element (mens rea).

Your charge sheet is accompanied by a statement of alleged facts. Prior to pleading guilty, you should read carefully through these alleged facts and ensure that they reflect what actually happened. If there are statements that you disagree with, you should speak to the prosecution and ask them if they will agree to amend the facts so that you can finalise the matter by pleading guilty.

It is important that the statement of facts accords with what you remember of what happened. You (or your lawyer) will not be allowed to make any submissions in court that contradict what is in the statement of facts.

Is there duplication between charges?

If you have been charged with more than one offence, there may be overlap or duplication between the charges. In some cases, where a person is willing to plead guilty and get a matter finalised quickly, the prosecution may be willing to withdraw one charge and accept a plea to the other charge. A common example of this is where a person is charged with possession of cannabis as well as supply of cannabis.

The prosecution may not be willing to withdraw any charges. However, it is always worth speaking to them about this before pleading guilty as you may be able to minimise the offences that end up on your criminal record and the sentence you receive.

Can the prosecution prove it?

If you are guilty, consider whether the prosecution can prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. This may mean adjourning the matter and obtaining the brief of evidence to see exactly what evidence they have against you.

If the brief of evidence reveals a weak prosecution case, it may be advisable to plead not guilty. Alternately, you may be able to use the weaknesses in the case to negotiate for the withdrawal of some of the charges.

Are there any defences available?

Even if you did the physical act that makes up the offence, there may be a defence available to you. This may be that the act was an accident or that you acted as you did because it was an emergency situation. It is always advisable to seek legal advice prior to pleading guilty to ensure there is no defence available to you.

Are there any mitigating factors?

If you decide to go ahead with pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court, you will have to present a plea in mitigation. This is where you (or your lawyer) tell the court the circumstances of the offence and your personal circumstances. It is your opportunity to ask the court for leniency if there are mitigating circumstances.

During your plea in mitigation, you should tell the court about your employment history and academic background. You can also provide character references from people who know you, are aware of the offending and can attest that it is out of character for you. You should also highlight any particular pressures or life circumstances that contributed to the offending.

If the offence was connected to an alcohol or drug problem, any steps you have taken to address this since the offending will be relevant to the court when it sentences you. If you have taken steps to make amends, such as by paying for the cost of repairing property damage, this will also be a relevant mitigating factor. If you are experiencing financial difficulties, make sure you let the court know this in case it is considering imposing a fine.

Court etiquette when pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court

When you attend the ACT Magistrates Court, make sure you arrive in plenty of time and are neatly and conservatively dressed. Make sure you have the whole day free as matters are rarely dealt with at the time they are listed. If you are facing traffic offences and there is a chance your licence will be disqualified, do not drive to court.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Fernanda Dahlstrom

This article was written by Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. She has also completed a Master’s in Writing and Literature. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory and in family law in Queensland.

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