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What is criminal law

Criminal law protects the public and maintains social order by prohibiting certain types of conduct. A person accused of a crime (the accused) may be charged in court and punished if found guilty.

The courts mete out appropriate punishments to deter (and sometimes to rehabilitate) offenders, protect the public from crime and ensure that justice is done (retribution). Examples of possible punishments include a jail term, fine, caning or the death penalty.

Note: A traffic or regulatory offence is considered a criminal case.

Overview of a criminal case

This is an overview of the criminal court process for persons who are charged with a crime:

  • The accused has to attend court proceedings.
  • The accused may decide to either plead guilty or claim trial. If the accused claims trial, a court will decide whether the accused is guilty of the crime.
  • If the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty after trial, the court will convict the accused of the offence. This means the accused is formally declared to have committed the crime. Once convicted, the judge will decide an appropriate punishment (also known as the sentence) and order the accused to serve the sentence.
  • Parties who are not satisfied with the court's decision may file an appeal under some circumstances.
Note
This process only applies to persons who are charged with a crime in the Magistrate's Court, District Court or High Court. Find out more about other types of criminal cases.

Who is involved in a criminal case

A criminal case usually involves the following:

Accused

The accused is the person who is charged in court for a criminal offence. The accused may be represented by a lawyer or be self-represented.

There may be more than one accused in a case. If there is more than one accused, they will be known as co-accused persons. Co-accused persons do not need to run the same defence to the charge and do not necessarily need to cooperate. They may each pursue their own interests.

(If any) Defence counsel

The accused's lawyer (if any) will be known as the defence counsel. The defence counsel's role is to represent the interests of the accused. The defence counsel, however, also has an ethical duty to the court and cannot mislead the court in any way.

If the accused disagrees with the defence counsel about how to conduct the case, the defence counsel may be discharged. The accused will either have to be self-represented or find a new defence counsel.

Prosecutor

A prosecutor is an officer who brings an accusation against the accused. It is the prosecutor's job to prove to the court that the accused committed the crime. The prosecutor prepares the necessary documents and evidence to demonstrate this.

The prosecutor's duty is to assist the court to find the truth and uphold justice. If the accused is convicted, the prosecutor may also ask the court to impose a specific sentence on the accused. Depending on the case, the prosecutor could be:

Exception: For cases arising from a Magistrate's Complaint, the prosecutor can be the the person who filed the complaint (or their lawyer, if any).

Judges and judicial officers

In court, proceedings are held before one or more judges or judicial officers. These officials are representatives of the state. They hear the arguments from parties and decide on the outcome of the case according to the law.

They are impartial and not for or against either side. You must address all judicial officials as "your honour" and obey their instructions when in court.

In the Supreme Court

In the Supreme Court, your case may be heard by either a judge or a registrar.

Judges of the Supreme Court are the most senior of judicial officials. There are 3 type of judges:

  • Justices of Appeal, who sit in the Court of Appeal and hear only appeal cases.
  • Justices, who sit in the High Court but sometimes may also hear appeals.
  • Judicial Commissioners, who sit in the High Court. Judicial Commissioners are generally more junior and have yet to be permanently emplaced as a justice.
Supreme Court registrars usually sit in administrative hearings designed to sort out details before the case goes to a judge. The most senior registrar is the Registrar of the Supreme Court, who is assisted by the deputy registrar, senior assistant registrars and assistant registrars.

In the State Courts

In the State Courts, your case may be heard by either a district judge or a magistrate. District judges are more senior and can hear more serious cases.

A district judge hears cases in a District Court. For criminal cases, this means offences that are punishable with a maximum imprisonment term of 10 years or a fine. A district judge may pass any of the following sentences:

  • Imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years.
  • A fine not exceeding $30,000.
  • Up to 12 strokes of the cane.
  • Any lawful sentence combining any of the sentences which it is authorised by law.

In special cases permitted by the law, a district judge can hear offences and impose sentences that exceed the above limits. A district judge may also hear cases in a Magistrate's Court.

A magistrate hears cases in a Magistrate's Court. For criminal cases, this means offences that are punishable with a maximum imprisonment term of 5 years or a fine. A magistrate may pass any of the following sentences:

  • Imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years.
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000.
  • Up to 6 strokes of the cane.
  • Any lawful sentence combining any of the sentences which it is authorised by law.

In special cases permitted by the law, a magistrate can hear offences and impose sentences that exceed the above limits. Magistrates also deal with Magistrate's Complaints.

(If applicable) Witness

A witness is someone who gives oral statements of fact in court or in a judge's hearing chambers. Find out more about being a witness.

Find out more

Note: Criminal cases that are held in open court are open to members of the public, due to the principle of open justice. Find out more about attending court sessions.


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