Criminal hearings and trials

Sometimes there needs to be a hearing with witnesses attending to give evidence before the court can make a decision in a case. This includes when a person pleads not guilty to a criminal charge. There is a structure for how different hearings and trials are conducted.

Criminal hearings in the Local Court

These are the basic steps that you can expect during a criminal hearing in the local court.

The case is called into the courtroom and the charges are usually read out to the defendant (person charged with the crime). The defendant is asked to plead guilty or not guilty. What happens next depends on the plea.

Guilty plea

If the defendant pleads guilty, the matter proceeds to sentencing.

  • The prosecutor, who represents the state, will give the magistrate a copy of the police facts and a copy of the defendant's criminal or traffic record
  • The defendant will tell the magistrate about anything that is relevant to the matter as well as his or her personal circumstances
  • The magistrate will decide on the penalty or sentence

In local court hearings where there is a guilty plea, the case is likely to be finalised that day.

Not guilty plea

If the defendant pleads not guilty the matter will be listed for a hearing. This is usually on another date.

In some cases, additional dates are required before a final hearing date is given. This is usually to give the police time to complete a 'brief of evidence', which is the witness statements they will be using at the hearing.

The judicial officer will give police a date by which they have to serve the brief of evidence on the defendant, and also what is called a 'reply date'.

After reading the brief of evidence, the defendant must come back to court on the reply date to confirm whether he or she is still pleading not guilty (or whether they now want to plead guilty). If the defendant confirms the not guilty plea, a hearing date will be set.

On the day of the hearing, the:

  • prosecutor, who represents the state, will outline the police case and present evidence; this usually takes the form of calling witnesses
  • defendant or their lawyer can question the witnesses about their evidence; this is called cross-examination
  • defendant or their lawyer can then outline the defence case and call their own witnesses
  • prosecutor can question or cross-examine the defence witnesses
  • prosecutor and the defence then address the court
  • magistrate makes a decision based on the evidence

If the defendant is found not guilty of the offence, he or she is discharged and is free to leave.

If the defendant is found guilty, the magistrate decides on the penalty. However, in serious matters the magistrate may ask for a pre-sentence report before deciding on the sentence.

Criminal trials by jury in the District or Supreme Court

This is a quick guide to what happens in a criminal trial by jury in the New South Wales District or Supreme Court.

The case is called into the court and the charges are read formally to the accused person. The accused is asked how they plead the charges: guilty or not guilty.

What happens next depends on the plea made by the defendant.

Guilty plea

  • If the accused pleads guilty the matter proceeds to sentencing
  • The prosecutor, who represents the state, will read out the facts, including the accused's prior criminal record
  • The accused or his or her lawyer will respond to the charges and give the information she or he wants to be taken into account when the judge decides the sentence
  • The judge can sentence the accused immediately or postpone sentencing until a later date

Not guilty plea

If the accused pleads not guilty, then the matter proceeds to trial.

  • A jury is sworn in (unless a decision has been made to conduct the trial with a judge alone). In most cases the jury consists of 12 people but in long trials in the Supreme Court 15 people may be sworn in
  • The prosecutor, who represents the state, makes opening remarks and calls witnesses to give evidence
  • The accused or his or her lawyer can question or cross-examine the witnesses about the evidence they have given
  • The defending party presents their witnesses. The other party or their lawyer gets to cross-examine the defence witnesses
  • The prosecutor can raise issues in reply to the defence case
  • The prosecutor and the defence representative each address the jury
  •  The judge sums up and gives directions to the jury
  • The jury goes out to deliberate
  • The jury returns and delivers a verdict of guilty or not guilty. If the jurors disagree they may advise that they cannot deliver a verdict
  • If the verdict is not guilty (an acquittal), the accused is discharged and is free to leave
  • If the verdict is guilty, the judge will set a date for sentencing
  • If there is a hung jury, where the jurors cannot reach a decision, then the matter can be referred for another trial on a future date by a different jury

In the district court, if the accused pleads not guilty and has been committed for trial, the first date he or she attends is usually for a call-over or arraignment to confirm the charges and the plea. 

A date for trial will then be set when witnesses can attend to give evidence. In some cases, witnesses may not attend at all. For example, in some district court appeal hearings, the judge reads the transcript of the evidence given by witnesses at the local court instead of the witnesses attending again. 

Find out more about the role of witnesses and giving evidence.

Last updated:

05 Jun 2020

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