Pleading Guilty in the Higher Courts (Qld)
When a person pleads guilty to a serious indictable offence in Queensland, they do so in either the District Court or Supreme Court, depending on the offence. There are a number of procedures that a matter must go through before it can be finalised as a plea in the higher courts. This article outlines the procedures involved in pleading guilty in the higher courts in Queensland.
How do matters commence?
All criminal matters commence in the Magistrates Court.
At the first appearance for a matter (sometimes called the “first mention”), the magistrate will establish whether the matter is to be heard and determined summarily in the Magistrates Court or committed to a higher court for finalisation.
The committal process
A committal proceeding is a preliminary proceeding where a magistrate assesses whether there is sufficient evidence for a matter to be committed to a higher court. In Queensland, there are two ways that matters are committed. This can occur by way of registry committal or by committal hearing.
Registry committals generally occur when the accused is pleading guilty in the higher courts and there is no need for the evidence to be tested. Registry committals are an administrative process where the defence and the police prosecution both sign and file a Notice of Intention to Proceed via Registry Committal in the magistrate court and the Registrar then commits the matter to a higher court without the need for a court appearance.
Committal hearings generally occur when an accused person intends to proceed to trial; however, they can also be held where the accused intends to proceed to sentence or where they are charged with multiple offences and are pleading guilty to some offences and not to others.
The purpose of a committal hearing is to ascertain whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant an accused person being put on trial in a higher court. It does not determine guilt; rather, it tests the strength of the prosecution case.
Pleading Guilty in the Higher Courts: The indictment
After a person has been charged with an indictable offence and the matter has been committed to a higher court, the charge must be reduced to writing in a document called an indictment. This procedure is set out in section 560 of the Criminal Code 1899. The indictment is prepared by the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) and provided to the defence before it is presented in the high courts.
Once a Crown prosecutor presents an indictment in the Supreme Court or District Court, the matter can be listed for trial or sentence in that court.
On the presentation of the indictment or at any later time, the accused person is to be informed in open court of the offence with which he or she is charged and is to be called upon to plead to the indictment and to say whether he or she is guilty or not guilty.
Pleading guilty in the higher courts: entering the plea
When a person is pleading guilty in the higher courts, they must enter their plea in person. This means that the plea cannot be made through counsel or any other person on the accused’s behalf. A clear and unambiguous plea of guilty is an admission of all the facts essential to the offence. No further proof is necessary.
A plea of guilty does not in itself constitute a finding of guilt. It is an admission that neither the Crown nor the court is obliged to accept. A finding of guilt is an act of the court. There is no conviction recorded until the sentence is delivered.
The factual basis for the charge must be accepted by the person pleading guilty to the offence. If there is a dispute as to the facts, the accused person should bring the matter to the attention of the prosecution which must then decide whether to call evidence to prove the facts as alleged by the prosecution or finalise the matter in a way that does not require the dispute to be resolved. The standard of proof to which a court must be satisfied of a disputed fact is the balance of probabilities.
A sentencing judge must do their best to establish the facts which determine the nature and gravity of the offending, especially facts which have a bearing on the offender’s moral culpability. Even so, it is sometimes not possible for the judge to ascertain everything which is relevant, especially where an offender chooses not to offer any evidence on the plea.
If there is a dispute about facts, the defence and prosecution will usually agree on a mutually acceptable summary of the facts without court intervention.
Pleading Guilty in the Higher Courts: Sentencing
Section 650 of the Criminal Code empowers the court to sentence an offender who has been found guilty. The Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 sets out the general powers of courts to sentence offenders and the various sentencing options are available, including imprisonment, fines and community-based orders.
The sentencing process is an exercise of the judge’s discretion when determining what sentence to impose. There is a multitude of mitigating and aggravating factors that a judge will take into account, including the nature and the circumstances of the offence, the antecedents and character of the defendant, previous offending, the relationship between earlier and later sentences, factual findings at sentencing and the material contained in any pre-sentence reports.
If a person believes that the sentence they receive in unfair, they can initiate an appeal. This must be done within 28 days of the date the sentence was imposed.
If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.