What is a Committal Hearing? (Qld)
When a person in Queensland is charged with a criminal offence, they are given a first mention date in the Magistrates Court. If the matter is a summary offence it will be finalised in the Magistrates Court. Some indictable matters can be finalised in the Magistrates Court as well but serious indictable offences must be transferred to a higher court. Before a matter can go to a higher court, it must go through the committal hearing process.
In Queensland, the District Court and the Supreme Court hear all serious indictable offences. The Supreme Court handles the most serious indictable offences, like murder and manslaughter, drug trafficking and rape. The District Court deals with matters such as drug supply, indecent treatment of a child, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, unlawful wounding and causing grievous bodily harm.
Brief of evidence
Before a charge can be committed to the District Court or Supreme Court, a brief of evidence must be served on the defence by the prosecution. The brief of evidence must contain all the evidence that the prosecution is relying on against the accused. This will generally include witness statements, an electronic record of interview, any CCTV footage of the incident, police statements and so on.
A committal can proceed by way of an oral committal hearing or a hand-up committal. An oral committal is usually held where the accused is planning to plead not guilty. A hand-up committal usually occurs where the accused is planning to plead guilty.
In an oral committal, prosecution witnesses will attend and have their evidence tested in cross-examination. A Magistrate will then determine whether there is a sufficient prosecution case for the matter to proceed to a higher court. If the Magistrate determines that there is enough evidence for a jury to be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused person is guilty, they will commit the matter to a higher court. If they consider the evidence insufficient to support a finding of guilt, the matter will be dismissed.
If the magistrate is satisfied that there is enough evidence to commit the matter, the defence then has the opportunity to present its case. However, there is a lot of risk in the defendant giving evidence during a committal hearing as the prosecution may use what they said against them during the trial. In most cases, the defence leading evidence at a committal is more detrimental than helpful.
The purpose of a committal hearing is not to determine guilt. It is simply to assess the evidence. The accused may be legally represented, and this is to be advised. The committal stage is an important stage in the progress of a serious indictable matter and a great deal of consideration should be given to whether an oral committal hearing should be held.
Advantages and disadvantages of a committal hearing
There are advantages and disadvantages to holding an oral committal hearing. Advantages include the possibility of the charges being dismissed without the need for a trial. It is also an opportunity for the prosecution case to be tested.
The disadvantages of holding an oral committal hearing are that it can give the prosecution a heads up on the argument the defence is planning to run at the trial. An oral committal can also give the prosecution witnesses the opportunity to practice and prepare for a jury trial, meaning they will know what to expect and may perform better. Lastly, an oral committal is costly to prepare and run and if the evidence is strong enough for the matter to proceed, the accused will still have the cost of running a trial.
Committals without an oral hearing
In most cases, an indictable offence charge will be committed to a higher court without an oral committal hearing. A defence solicitor will review the brief of evidence, and if there is sufficient evidence to proceed then the matter will be committed by consent. This can occur in two ways.
Firstly, it can occur by way of ‘full hand up’ committal. This consists of the prosecution handing up the brief of evidence to the magistrate, who will review it to make sure there is sufficient evidence for the matter to be committed to a higher court, and then commit the matter.
Secondly, it can occur through a Registry Committal. This is the administrative avenue of committing charges outside of court. The defence must have been served with all the evidence and witness statements beforehand. The magistrate will adjourn the matter to allow it be completed, and the next Magistrates Court date will be vacated once the Registry Committal has occurred. The matter will then be transferred to the District or Supreme Court.
If you require legal advice or representation in a criminal matter or in any other legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.