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Pleading Not Guilty

When a person is charged with a criminal offence, they do not have to admit anything or provide any information to the police that incriminates them. The prosecution bears the burden of proving that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence and the right to plead not guilty are central to the criminal justice system. This page deals with pleading not guilty in criminal matters generally; however, specific procedures vary between different jurisdictions.

Reasons for pleading not guilty

There are three main reasons that a person may plead not guilty.

They did not commit the acts alleged

If the accused did not commit the physical elements of the offence they have been charged with, they should plead not guilty and actively defend the matter. In this situation, an accused person will generally choose to give evidence in court, saying that they did not commit the alleged acts and outlining what really happened.

They have a legal defence

If an accused person did commit the physical acts alleged, they may have a legal defence. In other words, they committed the act, but they had an excuse for doing so.

Some examples of this are:

  • where a person is charged with assault after striking someone in self-defence;
  • where a person is charged with speeding but was driving fast because of an emergency situation;
  • where a person committed a burglary because they were placed under duress by another person.

In a case like this, there may be some matters that are not in dispute between the parties.

The defence will generally call evidence to support the legal defence that is being run. The defence will also cross-examine prosecution witnesses and put the accused’s version of events to each witness.

They are choosing to put the prosecution to proof

An accused person can also choose to ‘put the prosecution to proof’. This means that they simply do not admit the offence and leave it to the prosecution to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. This usually happens when the prosecution case is weak or where there is an expectation that certain witnesses may fail to attend or fail to give evidence that supports the prosecution case.

Pleading not guilty in the Magistrates Court

In the Magistrates Court, if a person enters a plea of not guilty, the magistrate will adjourn the case until the prosecution has provided the defence with a brief of evidence. This brief contains all the evidence that the prosecution intends to use, such as witness statements, CCTV footage, medical records, and forensic evidence.

Once the accused has reviewed the case against them, if they still choose to plead not guilty, the matter will be scheduled for a contested hearing. During the hearing, the prosecution will present their evidence against the accused, and the defence may also present their evidence. Both sides will make submissions, and the magistrate will then determine if the accused has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the accused is found guilty, the magistrate will impose a sentence, but if they are found not guilty, the case will be dismissed.

Pleading not guilty in a higher court

If a person is facing charges in the District Court, County Court, or Supreme Court and wishes to plead not guilty, the process is more intricate. The case will commence in the Magistrates Court, but before being transferred to a higher court, it must go through several procedural stages. These stages differ from state to state, but in all jurisdictions, the strength of the prosecution’s case will be evaluated. If the evidence is enough to persuade a jury that the accused is guilty, the case will be sent to a higher court.

Once the case is transferred to a higher court, it will be scheduled for trial. Typically, a jury of twelve randomly selected citizens will be empanelled to hear evidence from both sides and determine if the accused is guilty or not guilty. In some instances, the court may order a judge-alone trial.

If the accused is found guilty at trial, the judge will hand down a sentence. In contrast, if they are found not guilty, the case will be dismissed.


A verdict or a sentence can be appealed by either the prosecution or the defence. The appeal must be filed within 28 days of the decision in a criminal case.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Go To Court Lawyers.

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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