Contested Hearings (Qld)
When a person is charged with criminal offences, they have two options. They can either plead guilty and be sentenced or plead not guilty and run a contested hearing. This article will outline what is involved in a contested hearing in Queensland.
Pleas in mitigation
When a criminal matter commences, the accused is given a date to appear in the Magistrates Court that is closest in location to where the offence allegedly occurred. If the matter is a minor matter, the accused generally pleads guilty and finalises the matter on the first occasion. If the matter is more serious, it may be listed for a plea in mitigation at a later date. This may also occur with very minor matters if there is a reason they cannot be finalised on the first occasion.
Should an accused person wish to plead not guilty to a summary offence, the matter must be listed for a contested hearing in the Magistrates Court. If the accused is a juvenile, the matter will be listed for a contested hearing in the Children’s Court.
A contested hearing in relation to a summary offence is a hearing in front of a magistrate. Indictable matters are committed to a higher court and tried before a judge and jury.
A contested hearing consists of a magistrate listening to evidence and submissions from both the prosecution and defence and then making a decision as to whether the prosecution has succeeded in proving the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is a reasonable doubt in relation to any element of the offence, the person must be found not guilty.
Enter a plea
Before a matter is listed for a contested hearing, the defendant must appear in court and enter a plea of not guilty. This is how a person formally tells the court that they are pleading not guilty. The magistrate will then order the prosecution to provide a brief of evidence to the defence before a certain date.
Brief of evidence
The brief of evidence is a copy of all the evidence that the police are relying on to prove the accused guilty of the offence. The brief generally includes witness statements, the electronic record of interview by police (if one was conducted), any CCTV footage of the alleged incident, and statements from police involved in the investigation. An accused should always get legal advice after obtaining the brief of evidence and prior to going to the hearing. If the case against the accused is strong, a lawyer may advise them to plead guilty because there is a resulting sentencing discount.
What happens at a contested hearing?
A contested hearing is opened by the prosecution because they bear the onus of proving that the accused committed the offence. A contested hearing can occur without the defence calling evidence, because it is the prosecution which must prove its case.
Each of the prosecution witnesses will give evidence during the contested hearing through examination-in-chief. Examination in chief is the process of eliciting evidence by a party from its own witness. The prosecution case commonly includes the alleged victim, any police officers who dealt with the matter, CCTV footage where it exists, text messages and so on. The defence lawyer will then cross-examine each prosecution witness after they have finished giving their evidence in chief. During cross-examination, the defence interrogates the witnesses, trying to expose weaknesses in the prosecution case.
Once the prosecution has called all of its witnesses, it will close its case. The accused then has the option of giving evidence and calling defence witnesses. If the accused gives evidence, the defence will open its case. This often includes a summary of its client’s case. Each of the defence witnesses then gives evidence. The defence lawyer elicits the evidence in chief from the defence witnesses, and the prosecution cross-examines those witnesses. Once all the defence witnesses have given evidence, the defence closes its case.
Both the prosecution and defence then make submissions, where they will sum the evidence the court has heard and say how it supports their case. If the accused gave evidence, the defence will make submissions first. If the accused did not give evidence, the prosecution’s submissions will be first.
In criminal matters, the onus of proof lies with the prosecution, unless that onus has been reversed by the advancement of a defence by the accused. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offence alleged, and that they had no lawful excuse for doing so. Essentially, if there is a reasonable doubt about any element of the offence, the court must acquit the accused.
The magistrate will give the verdict after the contested hearing. They may deliver the verdict on the same day as the contested hearing or they may reserve the decision and hand it down at a later date.
In the District or Supreme Court, the jury will retire to consider its verdict. A jury in a criminal matter must reach a unanimous decision.
If the final verdict is that the accused is not guilty of the offence alleged, they are acquitted. If the verdict is guilty, the court will proceed to sentence the accused for the offence. This may happen immediately or the matter may be adjourned if reports or other information is required to be obtained.
If you require legal advice or representation in a criminal matter or in any other legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.