Criminal trials work in various ways across different legal systems. Whether you’re facing charges, become a victim, or anyone in between, knowing how a criminal trial unfolds is both important and interesting. For someone who is not familiar with the legal system, facing charges and having to appear in court is naturally an intimidating and stressful experience. Here are the essentials when it comes to criminal trials.
Different court structures
Different courts hear different cases depending on their severity and ramifications. Often cases involving child custody and other family law cases or purely drug-related offences will be heard in specific courts that are intended for these matters. Examples of this are the drugs court and the family court. Here’s the basic structure in Australia:
Magistrates Court - the lowest court in the hierarchy hears all civil and criminal charges with all proceedings starting at this level, it tackles claims of up to $75,000.
The District Court of Western Australia deals with all serious criminal charges including assault, serious theft, fraud, burglary, and more serious drug offences. The District Court deals with claims of up to $750,000, and will also have jurisdiction over all claims for personal injury and liability.
The Supreme Court of Western Australia has unlimited jurisdiction with all civil matters but will usually only hear matters with claims of above $750,000. The Supreme Court hears only the most serious criminal charges.
Depending on the seriousness of the charges laid out, various cases will go to trial and potentially be appealed to a higher court.
What happens before trial
In Australia, there is always a presumption of innocence before any trial has finished. The prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. When a plea of not guilty is entered by a defendant, a date for the trial will be set. Depending on the matter it could be a year before the matter goes to trial.
Before the trial begins, the Prosecution must provide a disclosure of evidence against the defendant, essentially all the documents, images, or other materials that will be used to build the case. This way, the defence can gauge the case against their client.
What happens during a criminal trial
Here is an outline of what happens during a criminal trial. Bear in mind, some proceedings will look different depending on individual circumstances.
Criminal proceedings always begin with the prosecution opening their case against the defendant. In this statement, the prosecution usually outlines what the case is, how it will be proven, and defines any particular terms.
The defence will then respond by outlining what is and isn’t agreed on.
The prosecution will then call a first witness and their story will be heard.
The defence will also have a chance to cross-examine a witness followed by a potential reexamination by the prosecution.
Any further evidence from the prosecution will be shown. This usually takes the form of videos or other materials.
With the prosecution’s case has been laid out, the defence responds with their own witnesses who are then interviewed and cross-examined.
The accused is not required to give evidence at any point but can do so if deemed appropriate. A similar examination and cross-examination unfolds with the accused answering questions and retelling their story.
The prosecution will deliver their closing statement, followed by the defence and their closing statement.
The magistrate will then deliberate on the matter and come to a final decision based on the facts heard throughout the entire trial.
How long does a criminal trial take?
Because all criminal charges are different in some way, the length of time it takes until a decision is handed down can vary. Depending on the seriousness of the charges and other factors including availability of witnesses, or the health of the defendant, this process could go on for months, if not years. Trials in the district and supreme courts will often take much longer the more straightforward cases heard at the magistrates level. There will also be no jury at the magistrates level, this is entirely up to the judge on the day.
Are criminal trials open to the public?
A majority of the time - yes. You can always check a particular court’s website for details on visiting hours, lists of proceedings, and etiquette. Some trial proceedings are closed to the public for a private hearing, but normally there will be open access to the gallery where you can sit quietly and observe. If you are expected to be in court soon, attending a trial is a good way to prepare and know your way around.