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Pleading Guilty in the Magistrates Court (Vic)

When a person is charged with summary offences in Victoria, they will finalise the matter either by pleading guilty and receiving a sentence or by contesting the charges. If the accused is an adult this will be done in the Magistrates Court and if they are a juvenile it will take place in the Children’s Court. An accused person who pleads guilty in the Magistrates Court may represent themselves or retain a lawyer. This article looks at what is involved in pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court in Victoria.

Summary Offences in Victoria

Summary offences are offences that attract a maximum penalty of not more than two years imprisonment. These include traffic offences and public disorder offences like disorderly behaviour. A summary criminal matter can be finalised the first time the accused attends court but it is not always advisable to do so.

Indictable offences, which are more serious and have longer maximum penalties, are finalised in the County Court and Supreme Court.

Things To Consider Prior to Pleading Guilty In The Magistrates Court in Victoria

Before a person finalises charges by pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court or Children’s Court of Victoria, they should consider the following questions.

Are you actually guilty?

There may be more to this question than you realise.

A person should not plead guilty unless they are certain that all elements of the offence are made out. For some offences, this will involve a physical act also known as the actus reus, and a mental element also known as the mens rea. It is always a good idea to seek legal advice before pleading guilty to offences in case there are elements of the offence that are not made out, meaning that the matter should be contested.

When an accused is charged, they receive a charge sheet that is accompanied by the police statement of alleged facts. Before pleading guilty, they should read carefully through these alleged facts and ensure that they accurately reflect what happened. If there are statements in the police statement of facts that you disagree with, you should talk to the prosecution and see if they will agree to amend the facts so that you can plead guilty. It is important that the police facts accord with what you believe happened. The defence will not be allowed to make submissions in court that contradict the police facts.

Is there duplication between charges?

If the police have charged you with more than one offence, there may be overlap or duplication between charges. In some cases, where an accused pleads guilty, the prosecution may agree to withdraw one charge if the accused pleads guilty to the other charge. A common example of this is where an accused person is charged with possession as well as supply of a drug.

The prosecution may not agree to withdraw any of the charges. However, it is always worth speaking to them about this possibility before pleading guilty.

Can the prosecution prove it?

If the accused is guilty of the offences, the next question is can the prosecution prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to assess this, it may be necessary to adjourn the matter and obtain the brief of evidence to see what material the prosecution case contains.  

If the brief of evidence reveals a weak Crown case, it may make sense to plead not guilty. Alternately, it may be possible to use the weakness of the case to negotiate for the withdrawal of some of the charges.

Are there any defences?

Even if the accused committed the physical elements of the offence, they may have recourse to a legal defence. For example, the act may have been an accident or the accused may have acted as they did because it was an emergency situation. It is always worth seeking legal advice prior to pleading guilty in case there are any defences available to you.

Are there any mitigating factors?

If you are pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court, you or your lawyer will have to present a plea in mitigation to the court. This is where you inform the court of the circumstances of the offence and your personal circumstances. If there were mitigating circumstances, you can ask the court for leniency.

Mitigating circumstances are different from a defence. They put the offending in a context where it is more understandable. They do not amount to an excuse but provide an explanation. 

During your plea in mitigation, you should outline your employment and academic history (if applicable). You can also tender character references from people who know you and are aware of the offending and can give evidence of your prior good character. You should also point out any particular pressures or circumstances that you think contributed to the offending.

If the offending was connected to a drug or alcohol problem, any steps taken to address these issues since the offending will be relevant at sentencing. If you have taken steps to make amends for your actions, such as by paying for property damage, this will also be considered as a mitigating factor. If you are under financial pressure, let the court know this in case it is considering giving you a fine.

Court Etiquette

When you attend the Victorian Magistrates Court, make sure you arrive early and are neatly and conservatively dressed. It is a good idea to keep the whole day free as matters are not usually heard at the time they are listed. If you are pleading guilty to traffic offences and your licence may be disqualified, make sure that you do not drive to court.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Fernanda Dahlstrom

This article was written by Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. She has also completed a Master’s in Writing and Literature. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory and in family law in Queensland.

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