As a criminal lawyer, one thing that I continually have to remind myself of is the apprehension of your clients when they attend court.
Now some of that apprehension comes from the likely penalties the court may impose on them, but also much of the apprehension comes from the foreign environment that a courthouse is for most people.
Being someone who spends a significant majority of their work day in or around the courts, it is very easy to get blasé about how intimidating the place can be for most people.
With its metal detectors, sheriff’s officers and policeman everywhere, high imposing ceilings, magistrates on a high pedestal overlooking everyone, it’s not an environment that people would come across everyday.
Add to this men walking around with gowns on, some even with wigs. As George off Seinfeld would say, “It’s a bald man’s paradise” and I should know
What may make it a little easier and less disconcerting for the infrequent visitor to court is if I were to give you a brief rundown of the procedure and the who’s who in the Local Court.
Firstly just about all criminal matters in NSW commence in the local court, from murders to shoplifting. Once a person has been charged by the police, they receive a document called a court attendance notice, which displays which court they have to go to and when. It will also detail what they have been charged with and an additional document (the police facts sheet) detailing the facts of the charge as alleged by the police.
If they are placed on bail, they will also be given details of any conditions of their bail that they have to adhere to, including turning up for their day in court. Not all people are put on bail however. It generally depends on the seriousness of their charge and their past criminal record.
Once they get to court, they generally go through security screening, usually conducted by sheriff’s officers, not the police, but sometimes a private security firm, like out at the airport.
Most courts have a Registrar’s callover which is a bit like a court, but it is run by a person who is a court administrator and they try and shield the magistrate from unneccessary preliminary issues and sort out the administrative aspects of each case. For example, if a person needs an adjournment of their matter because they are yet to see a solicitor, or a witness statement is not yet ready, etc. The Registrar also sets out the timetable for people who have pleaded not guilty, on the way to their matters eventually being determined by a magistrate or judge.
The most regular thing the Registrar does is accept people’s pleas of guilty and refer them to a magistrate’s court for their matter to be finalised.
Once you get into the magistrates court, you will generally find the magistrate sitting all by himself (or herself) on a raised bench overlooking all of the courtroom. The magistrates these days wear gowns but no wigs, but up until a few years ago, dressed in a simple business suit.
In front of the magistrate sits the court officer and usually a sound recordist. The court officer helps the magistrate run the court by organising defendants who are not represented by lawyers, calling out for people who should be before the court, chasing up files or records that the magistrate requires, and even sometimes playing security guard telling people to keep quiet or to track down a noisy mobile phone.
All proceedings in the local court are recorded just in case of future disputes and this important function is that of the sound recordist.
Directly opposite the magistrate is the bar table, and this is where the police prosecutor sits. They are usually surrounded by a pile of files, as they represent the Crown or the people. The police are generally the ones bringing the charges to court, and generally the one prosecutor will have to look after the prosecution of all the matters in that court for that day.
Also sitting next to the police prosecutor at the bar table will be the legal representatives of people in court, lawyers and occasionally barristers.
Courts often operate differently. In some, after the callover you are allocated a number or at least a position in the magistrates court and you have to wait for the magistrate to call you, before your matter can proceed. In other courts, their is no allocation of a determined order for matters to be heard, so the lawyers just jump up and mention their matters when its convenient. In most courts junior members of the profession usually as a courtesy let the more senior members go first, but even this practice is becoming less common in this world where everyone is on a tight schedule and pushed for time.
If a person is pleading guilty, their lawyer, once it is their turn, will stand up and confirm this with the magistrate. The magistrate will have a copy of the charge sheets on his file, and therefore know what the person has been charged with, but no little else about the matter.
Having heard the lawyer enter the guilty plea to the charge, the magistrate will ask the police prosecutor to hand up the police facts sheet and the persons criminal history, if they have any. The facts sheet sets out in a narrative what the police alleged are the circumstances that led to the person commiting the crime. If the person charged disagrees with the details outlined in the facts sheet, they must try to have them altered by the police, before their plea is entered in to, otherwise the magistrate will assume that they agree with the details in the fact sheet.
The magistrate will read the facts sheet, the person’s criminal history, and any material that may be tendered by the lawyer acting for the person. The persons lawyer will almost always tender references that speak well of the person, and occcasionally other material such as medical reports, receipts, and anything else that they believe will assist their client.
After the magistrate has read all of this material, the lawyer will commence to do their plea in mitigation. This is where the lawyer attempts to explain the person’s actions from their viewpoint, and obviously try and paint the best possible picture of the person’s offending behaviour. Als, in the plea, the lawyer will address the personal circumstances of the person, which may be highly relevant to the particular sentencing options the magistrate is considering.
A good lawyer will have achieveable sentencing options in mind and frame his submissions along these lines, steering the magistrate towards these options.
Once the lawyer has finished his plea, he will sit down and ask his client to stand to be sentenced. The magistrate will then sentence the person, imposing whatever sentence they consider appropriate to the case. The magistrate will usually address the person and in addition to detailing what their sentence is, provide the reasons that that sentencing option has been chosen, and give the person a short lecture on their offending behaviour.
Unless the person has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment, once the magistrate has finished sentencing them, as long as their are no administrative matters to deal with, such as signing good behaviour bonds, then they are free to go. Once sentenced and their matter finalised, their bail is no longer applicable.
So that is a short, simplfied rundown of the local court and its people and procedures for a typical guilty plea for a relatively minor criminal matter. Hopefully it will make yours or someone you know’s next visit to court, a little less disconcerting.