Pleading Guilty in the Magistrates Court (ACT)

When a person is charged with criminal offences in the ACT, they are required to finalise the matter by pleading guilty or by contesting the charges. When a person contests a matter, they must go through a hearing in a lower court or a trial in a higher court. When a person pleads guilty, they proceed to be sentenced by a judge or magistrate. This article deals with pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court in the ACT.

Pleading guilty to summary offences

Summary offences carry a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment or less. They are finalised by a magistrate.

Summary offences include traffic offences like drink driving and driving while disqualified as well as public disorder offences like disorderly and offensive behaviour and trespass. It is possible to finalise a summary criminal matter on the first occasion that an accused person attends court, but it is not always advisable to do so.

What to do before pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court

Before pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court, there are a number of things you should think about.

Are you actually guilty?

This may seem simple, but there may be more to it than you realise. You should not plead guilty to a charge unless you are confident that all the elements of the offence are made out. For a lot of offences, this will include a physical element (actus reus) and a mental element (mens rea) such as intention or recklessness.

Before pleading guilty, you should read carefully through the police summary of alleged facts and make sure that they reflect your understanding of what happened. If there are statements that you disagree with, you should speak to the prosecution and ask them if they will agree to amend the facts so that you can finalise the matter by pleading guilty.

It is important that the statement of facts accords with what you remember of what happened. The defence is not allowed to make any submissions that contradict what is in the statement of facts.

Is there duplication between charges?

If you are charged with more than one offence, there may be overlap or duplication between the charges. In some cases, where a person is willing to plead guilty and get a matter finalised quickly, the prosecution may agree to withdraw one of the charges and accept a plea to the other charge. Some situations where this occurs is where a person is charged with possession of cannabis as well as supply of cannabis or resist police as well as assault police.

The prosecution may not be willing to withdraw any charges. However, it is always worth trying to negotiate before pleading guilty as you may be able to minimise the number of offences that end up on your record.

Can the prosecution prove it?

If you are guilty, consider whether the prosecution can prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. This will usually involve adjourning the matter and getting the brief of evidence to see exactly what evidence they have against you.

If the brief of evidence reveals a weak prosecution case, it is usually best to plead not guilty. Alternately, you may be able to use the weaknesses in the case to negotiate for the withdrawal of some or all of the charges.

Are there any defences available?

Even if you did the physical act that makes up the offence, there may be a defence available. This may be that the act was an accident or that you did it because of an emergency situation. It is always advisable to seek legal advice prior to pleading guilty.

Are there any mitigating factors?

If you decide to go ahead with pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court, you or your lawyer  will have to present a plea in mitigation to the court. This is where you tell the court the circumstances of the offence and your personal situation. It is your opportunity to ask the court for leniency if there are mitigating circumstances.

During your plea in mitigation, you should tell the court about your employment history and academic background. You can also provide character references from people who know you, are aware of the offending and can attest that it is out of character for you. You should also highlight any particular pressures or life circumstances that contributed to the offending.

If the offence was connected to an alcohol or drug problem, any steps you have taken to address this since the offending will be relevant to the court when it sentences you. If you have taken steps to make amends, such as by paying for the cost of repairing property damage, this will also be a relevant mitigating factor. If you are experiencing financial difficulties, make sure you let the court know this in case it is considering imposing a fine.

Court etiquette when pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court

When pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court, make sure you arrive in plenty of time and are dressed neatly and conservatively. It is a good idea to have the whole day free as matters are rarely dealt with at the time they are listed. If you are facing traffic offences and there is a chance your licence will be disqualified, do not drive to court.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Go To Court Lawyers.


Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws from Latrobe University, a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the College of Law, a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne and a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) from Deakin University. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory. She also practised in family law after moving to Brisbane in 2016.
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