Pleading Guilty In The County Court (Vic)
Whilst most matters that are finalised in the County Court commence in the Magistrates Court, the two jurisdictions are very different. While the Magistrates Court deals with summary offences, the County Court deals with serious indictable offences that are generally dealt with by way of lengthy terms of imprisonment. This article deals with pleading guilty in the County Court.
Committing a matter to the County Court
Proceedings in the County Court jurisdiction are commenced by a Filing Hearing in the Magistrates Court. From there, the matter is adjourned for a Committal Mention, which also takes place in the Magistrates Court. It is on this day that the court will want to know whether the accused is intending to plead guilty or whether they intend to contest the allegations.
A plea of guilty in the County Court is generally entered whilst the matter is still in the Magistrates Court. If a plea of guilty is entered at the Committal Mention, the matter is then adjourned and listed for a plea hearing in the County Court. A person can enter a plea of guilty at any time during a County Court criminal proceeding, even if they have previously indicated that they are contesting the allegations.
Sentencing discount for pleading guilty in the County Court
The courts extend a sentencing discount when a person pleads guilty at an early opportunity. This is because the accused is not causing the court to conduct lengthy proceedings or requiring the witnesses to give evidence at trial.
The sentencing discount means that the penalty imposed will be lower than if the person had been found guilty after a trial. This discount has increased significantly during the COVID pandemic.
Preparing for pleading guilty in the County Court
When pleading guilty in the County Court, your legal team will usually comprise a solicitor as well as a Counsel/Barrister chosen by you. At Armstrong Legal, we usually recommend a number of barristers based on their expertise and experience in the relevant offending conduct area and our prior relationship with them.
In preparing for the plea hearing, we will conference with the client multiple times, to ensure that we are across all of their personal circumstances, both as they relate to the offending conduct, but also more generally. This usually includes obtaining a detailed life history and may even include details about other people in their family. The purpose of obtaining all of this information is to ensure that we are able to put all the mitigating factors in the client’s life, before the judge for consideration.
Additionally, we generally advise and assist clients to obtain/prepare the following supporting documents, which we may rely upon during the plea hearing:
This is a letter drafted by the client and addressed to the court. In this letter, a person addresses the court directly and comments on their remorse and insight for the offending. Whilst you draft the letter, we may give you feedback on it.
An apology letter should generally include:
- A genuine apology that demonstrates an understanding of the consequences of your actions (especially for others such as the victim, your family, the court system as well as the greater community in general);
- Any steps you have taken to address your behaviour since the offending, such as counselling.
Each letter of apology is unique and must be personal to have any impact on the sentence. It must be tailored to the specific offender, their circumstances and the offending conduct.
In addition to or in the alternative to handing the court your letter of apology, you may also provide your apology to the court verbally on the day of your plea hearing. This will require you to be sworn in or give an oath to tell the truth and involves your barrister as well as the prosecutor asking you questions. If you wish to do this, we will discuss the pros and cons of this in your specific circumstances, prior to making a decision. We would of course also assist you with any preparations for this.
Additionally, we usually recommend the provision of multiple character references. Ideally, character references should be provided by someone who:
- knows about the offending;
- the client has spoken to about the offending – and as such can provide information about their insight and remorse;
- has known the person for many years;
- is of good character themselves – i.e. does not have a significant or recent criminal history.
All references must be signed.
A character reference may generally include:
- personal details of the reference provider, such as name, age, address and occupation;
- how long and in what capacity the writer knows you;
- that they are aware of the charges;
- how they became aware of those charges, as well as what discussions they have had with you regarding them;
- any observations as to how the offending or proceedings have impacted you, as well as any steps they have seen you take to address the factors that contributed to the offending;
- any guidance and support they can offer you.
If the character reference is from your employer, it can also address any impact the recording of a conviction or a licence suspension would have on your employment.
Medical material may comprise letters from your General Practitioner, treating specialist or counsellors. In light of the possibility of your being sentenced to a term of imprisonment, it is important that the judge is made aware of any ongoing physical or mental health concerns. This impacts how you will experience imprisonment and as such also how burdensome it will be for you personally. This may impact the length of any term of imprisonment imposed, as well as whether or not a term of imprisonment is imposed.
When pleading guilty in the County Court, it is often advisable to see a Forensic Psychologist or Psychiatrist for an assessment and report. These reports can address your risk of reoffending and also comment on the impact imprisonment may have on you. Whilst they come at an additional cost, these reports can have a significant impact on the sentence ultimately imposed.
At the end of the plea hearing, the judge will usually want to take some time to consider what they have heard and further peruse the provided plea material before determining a sentence. To enable this, the judge will usually adjourn the matter for a sentencing hearing on a subsequent date, usually in five to seven days’ time.
The court may at this time place you into custody, especially if the judge is certain that you will receive a term of imprisonment. Sometimes, however, the court will allow you to return home until the sentencing hearing, even if they see a term of imprisonment as inevitable. It is a matter of discretion for the judge.
On the day of the sentencing hearing, the judge will usually not allow any further material to be filed or submissions to be made. The judge will have prepared their reasons and sentence and will simply read this out. They will then ask you to stand, before delivering the sentence.
If the sentence includes a term of imprisonment, you will be taken into custody immediately. Your lawyer will come and see you in the cells, at the basement of the County Court, to discuss the outcome with you.
While in court for a plea or sentencing hearing you will not be permitted to sit in the body of the court. Instead, you will be sitting in the dock, which is the section where people in custody sit. You will likely have at least one prison officer sitting with you. You will not be allowed to have anyone else sitting next to you. If your friends or family are in attendance to support you, they will generally be able to sit in the body of the court (though this may be impacted by COVID).
If you believe the sentence imposed is excessive, you have a right to appeal the decision. An appeal must be filed within 28 days of the date of your sentencing.
If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.