The Process of Criminal Charges through the Court System
Once a person is charged with a criminal offence, there is often a lengthy process which must take place before the charge is finalised by a court. A charge is finalised once a person has either been convicted after a trial or enters a plea of guilty, and is sentenced. The process, and criminal law in general, can be extremely complex and so it is critical that a person facing serious criminal charges engage the services of an experienced criminal lawyer as early as possible.
The different levels of Courts in Queensland
All matters, whether it be drink driving or murder, must originate in the ‘Magistrates Court’. There are many Magistrates Courts located across Queensland but the larger ones (in terms of caseload) are the Brisbane Magistrates Court, Richlands Magistrates Court, Ipswich Magistrates Court and Beenleigh Magistrates Court. Less serious charges can be finalised in the Magistrates Court but more serious charges must be finalised before the ‘District Court’ or the ‘Supreme Court’. The District Court deals with offences which carry as its maximum penalty terms of imprisonment of 20 years or less, such as serious assaults or robbery, and the Supreme Court deals with offences which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, such as murder or drug trafficking.
If a person is not satisfied with a result, whether it be a finding of guilt or a sentence imposed, they have the right to appeal the matter to a higher court. Appeals from the Magistrates Court will be heard in the District Court and appeals from the District Court and Supreme Court will be heard in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal is the highest court in Queensland, and appeals from the Court of Appeal can only be heard in the ‘High Court’ in Canberra.
The evidence against a defendant
As soon as a person has been charged, the police must provide what is known as a form ‘QP9’. This is a very basic summary of fact, which is usually only a few pages in length, and is designed to inform the court and the person of the circumstances surrounding the charge. For charges that must proceed to the District or Supreme Courts the police must then provide a ‘brief of evidence’. The brief consists of all of the evidence that the police will rely upon, including witness statements and exhibits, such as photographs, forensic statements, drug analysis certificates or video footage. The gathering of the brief of evidence can be an extremely lengthy process and can take months, and sometimes years to complete, depending on the complexity of the charge. At Cridland & Hua Lawyers we have extensive experience in handling large scale drug trafficking and drug importation matters and due to the types of evidence that are traditionally associated with such matters, such as telephone intercept material and covert recordings, it is not uncommon for briefs of evidence to take in excess of a year to be disclosed in full.
The legal obligation to disclose all material
After the brief of evidence has been provided, part of an experienced criminal defence lawyer’s job is to work out what, if anything, hasn’t been provided by the police. The police will sometimes only provide the evidence that is harmful to a defendant and either not bother to gather, or in some instances, completely withhold any evidence that might help a defendant and an experienced criminal lawyer will be able to identify what, if anything, is missing. The law in Queensland requires that the police disclose all material that may be relevant, even if it helps a defendant.
We have previously been involved in a matter before the Richlands Magistrates Court where the defendant was charged with driving dangerously. Upon a reading of the brief, it appeared that there was a strong case against him as he was identified by a witness as being the driver of the car. After we obtained the brief, we were able to discover that the police hadn’t provided all of the relevant evidence and made the request to the police. As it turns out, the police hadn’t provided to the defendant a critical statement. This statement was from the same witness who was supposedly able to identify him, and it showed that the witness had failed to pick him out of a photo line up. This seriously damaged the identification evidence of this witness and the police eventually discontinued the charge against this defendant. This is a very simple example of why it is so important to engage the services of an experienced criminal lawyer.
Timeframes for charges to be finalised
More serious matters which must proceed to the District Court or Supreme Court can often take years to be finalised. This is so, even if a defendant is pleading guilty. This depends on, as discussed above, the size of the brief, as well as whether or not the defendant decides to challenge the evidence along the way – a decision that a defendant will be able to discuss with their criminal defence lawyer. Further to this, the criminal courts, and in particular the larger courts, such as the Brisbane Magistrates Court, Richlands Magistrates Court, Ipswich Magistrates Court and Beenleigh Magistrates Court are often flooded with matters and the police and prosecutions understaffed, which only adds to the length of time that it takes to finalise matters.