Committal Hearings (ACT)
When a person is charged with a serious indictable offence in the ACT, the matter must go through a committal hearing. This is a pre-trial procedure that occurs in the Magistrates Court or Children’s Court, before the matter is transferred to the Supreme Court for finalisation. Committal hearings in the ACT are governed by the Criminal Procedure Act 1986.
Which offences must go through a committal hearing?
Any criminal offence that is to be finalised in the Supreme Court must first go through a committal hearing.
Serious indictable offences such as murder and manslaughter can only be dealt with in the Supreme Court and these matters will always have to go through committal procedures.
Other less serious indictable offences such as assault and stealing can be finalised in the Magistrates Court when both parties agree. When this occurs, no committal hearing is required. When a party elects for an indictable matter to be dealt with by the Supreme Court, it must first go through a committal.
What is a committal hearing?
A committal hearing is a pre-trial procedure that is used to test the strength of the prosecution case against the accused. Prosecution witnesses are cross-examined, and the defence may call witnesses if it chooses.
If the magistrate is satisfied that the evidence is strong enough that a jury could find the accused guilty, the matter will be committed to the Supreme Court. If the magistrate does not think that a jury could find the accused guilty based on the evidence, the matter will be dismissed.
A matter will go through a number of procedural stages before it reaches a committal hearing. These steps are set out in section 55 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986.
First, the prosecution will prepare a brief of evidence and serve it on the defence. This is a copy of all the evidence that the prosecution intends to rely on against the accused.
A charge certificate is then filed in the Magistrates Court and served on the accused. This confirms which charges are going to be proceeded with.
One or more case conferences will then be held. This is an opportunity for defence and prosecution to negotiate the resolution of the matter. This may be through the accused pleading guilty, charges being withdrawn, or charges being replaced with alternate charges.
On the day of the committal hearing, the accused will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. After reviewing the evidence, the magistrate will either commit the matter to the Supreme Court or dismiss it.
What is the purpose of committal hearings?
Committal hearings ensure that weak and vexatious prosecutions are eliminated at an early stage and do not take up the time of the higher courts. Committals also provide the defence with an opportunity to test the prosecution case and to try out potential arguments before the trial.
Committal hearings can also save the Supreme Court time when the matter goes to trial as some matters that have been dealt with at the committal hearing can be referred to at the trial, avoiding the need to go over some matters again.
Advantages and disadvantaged of calling evidence
There are advantages and disadvantages to the defence calling evidence at a committal hearing.
Doing so can allow the defence to explore and test possible lines of argument. It can also potentially expose weaknesses in the prosecution case, which may even lead to the matter being dismissed at committal stage.
However, calling evidence in an accused’s defence at a committal can also alert the prosecution to the defence the accused intends to run, which may disadvantage the defence at the trial.
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