Advantages and Disadvantages of a Committal Hearing
Committal hearings were held in the past and gave a person accused of a serious crime the right to cross-examine each of the witnesses, including the alleged victim, about any matter that was relevant to their defence. In addition, there was no requirement on a person accused of a serious crime to disclose the reasons they wanted to cross-examine a witness and the areas which they would cross-examine upon.
The law has changed significantly recently and there are now requirements upon a person accused of a serious crime to provide the reasons why they want to cross-examine witnesses before the court will allow this. For this reason there are not only advantages to having a committal hearing, there are now disadvantages.
Please note: On 30 April 2018 significant amendments were made to the legislation, overhauling this process and abolishing the ability for defendants to have a ‘committal hearing’.
Advantages of a committal hearing
The charges may be dismissed
Your defence lawyer may be able to discredit or seriously challenge the evidence of the alleged victim or the police witnesses so much so that the court finds that there is no reasonable prospect that a reasonable jury properly instructed would convict you of an indictable offence. If the court makes such a finding, the charges against you will be dismissed at the committal.
A ‘no bill’ application may be accepted
Although a magistrate may commit you for a trial before the District Court this does not necessarily mean that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) will proceed against you in the District Court. The DPP may come to the opinion that it is not in the public interest to prosecute you in the District Court because of what occurred in the Local Court committal hearing. If witnesses perform poorly under cross-examination or were discredited or it became obvious that the police case was a weak, the DPP may choose not to proceed further with the charges.
Your criminal defence lawyer can make an application to the DPP (a no bill application) for the withdrawal of the charges against you. Quite often it is not until the Director of Public Prosecution has had the opportunity to observe the witnesses under cross examination that they would consider withdrawing the charges.
Evidence may be uncovered at the committal hearing
Often further evidence comes to light at a committal hearing that was not contained within the statements that were provided by the police. This evidence may help your case or may hurt your case. It is important to discover this new evidence at the committal hearing before the trial. If this evidence was given at the trial and it caught your criminal defence lawyer off guard, then this may have a devastating effect upon your trial. However if the evidence is discovered prior to your trial it may be that your lawyer fights to keep the evidence out at the District Court, does not ask questions in relation to that matter at your trial, obtains contrary evidence to disprove the evidence that was given by the witness at the committal hearing or provides an argument or explanation for the witnesses response at the committal hearing.
Weaknesses may be discovered
It is common for police to take statements that paint their case in the best possible light. Only when a witness is cross-examined at the committal hearing are weaknesses in their evidence uncovered. These weaknesses may allow your defence team to gather more evidence before the trial to expose weaknesses in the police case.
Disadvantages of a committal hearing
Police get a chance to fix their case
When witnesses are cross-examined and weaknesses in the police case are exposed, it is common for police to go and obtain further evidence to strengthen their case. Your lawyer’s cross-examination of witnesses at the committal hearing may also help the police to discover what your defence may be and for them to go and collect evidence to disprove your defence.
Witnesses are ready for your cross-examination
If a witness is cross-examined at a committal hearing and their evidence is discredited, that witness may change their evidence or clarify their answers during the trial. It has been our experience that there is nothing more powerful than to expose a witness to be lying before a jury. If that witness is caught out lying, the jury is unlikely to accept anything that witness has to say. If, however, the witness has been cross-examined at a committal hearing and been discredited, the witness may be able to explain away the matter at the trial.
If you require any information on committal hearings or any other legal matter, call us on 1300 038 223 or send us an email.