Pleading Guilty in the Magistrates Court (WA)
When a person is charged with offences in Western Australia, they are required to finalise the matter either by pleading guilty and undergoing sentencing or by contesting the charges. If the offences are summary offences such as traffic offences or public disorder offences, they are finalised by a magistrate. If the person is an adult this will occur in the Magistrates Court and if they are under 18 it will occur in the Children’s Court. A person who pleads guilty in the Magistrates Court may represent themselves or have a lawyer representing them. This article deals with pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court in the ACT.
Summary offences are offences that carry a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment or less. Indictable offences, which are more serious and carry longer penalties, are finalised in the District Court and Supreme Court.
Summary offences include traffic offences like drink driving and driving while disqualified as well as public disorder offences like disorderly and offensive behaviour. While a summary criminal matter can be finalised on the first occasion an accused attends court, it is not always advisable to do so.
Things to consider before pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court in WA
Before a person finalises a matter by pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court or Children’s Court in WA, they should consider the following.
Are you actually guilty?
This may seem like a straightforward question, but there may be more to it than you realise.
A person should not plead guilty to an offence unless they are certain that all its elements are made out. For some offences, this will involve a physical act (actus reus) and a mental element (mens rea). For this reason, it is always advisable to seek legal advice before pleading guilty.
When a person is charged with offences, they receive a charge sheet that is accompanied by a statement of alleged facts. Prior to pleading guilty, they should read carefully through these alleged facts and ensure that they are an accurate summary of what actually happened. If there are statements in the police facts that you disagree with, you should ask the prosecution if they will agree to amend the facts so that you can finalise the matter as a plea. It is important that the police facts are in accord with what you remember of what happened. The defence will not be allowed to make any submissions in court that contradict what is stated in the police facts.
Is there duplication between charges?
If you have been charged with two or more offences, there may be overlap or duplication between the charges. In some cases, where an accused is pleading guilty, the prosecution may agree to withdraw one charge and accept a plea to the other charge. A common example of this is a person being charged with possession of cannabis and well as the supply of cannabis.
The prosecution may not be willing to withdraw any charges. However, it is always worth speaking to them about this before pleading guilty.
Can the prosecution prove it?
If you are guilty, the next question is can the prosecution prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to assess this, it may be prudent to adjourn the matter and obtain the brief of evidence to see exactly what material they have against you.
If the brief of evidence reveals a weak prosecution case, you may decide to plead not guilty. Alternately, you may be able to use the weaknesses in the case to negotiate with the prosecution for the withdrawal of some of the charges.
Are there any defences?
Even if you committed the physical act that makes up the offence, there may be a legal defence available. For example, the act may have been an accident or you may have acted as you did because it was an emergency. It is always advisable to seek legal advice prior to pleading guilty in case there are any defences available.
Are there mitigating factors?
If you decide on pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court in WA, you or your lawyer will have to present a plea in mitigation. This is where you tell the court the circumstances of the offence and your personal circumstances. You can ask the court for leniency if there are mitigating circumstances.
Mitigating circumstances are different from a defence. They do not excuse the offending. Rather, they put the offending in a context where it is understandable (though still deserving of punishment, but potentially a lesser punishment).
During your plea in mitigation, you should outline your employment history and academic background. You can also hand up character references from people who know you and are aware of the offending and can attest to your prior good character. You should also highlight any particular pressures or circumstances that contributed to the offending.
If the offence was connected to alcohol or drug use, any steps taken to address this since the offending will be relevant when the court sentences you. If you have taken steps to make amends for the offending, such as by paying for property damage, this will also be a relevant mitigating factor. If you are under financial pressure, make sure you inform the court of this in case it is considering imposing a fine.
Court etiquette when pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court
When you attend the WA Magistrates Court, make sure you arrive early and are neatly and conservatively dressed. It is a good idea to have the whole day free as matters are rarely dealt with at the time they are listed. If you are pleading guilty to traffic offences and there is a chance your licence will be disqualified, do not drive to court.
If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.