Committal Proceedings (NT)
In the NT, summary criminal matters are heard in the Magistrates Court and Children’s Court. Indictable criminal matters such as robbery in company and serious harm are heard in the Supreme Court. When a person is charged with an indictable offence and the matter is to be dealt with on indictment, the matter must proceed through a committal before being transferred to the Supreme Court for finalisation by way of plea or trial. The committal will be held in the Magistrates Court (if the accused is an adult) or the Children’s Court (if the accused is under 18). This article deals with committal hearings in the NT.
What are committal proceedings?
A committal proceeding is a preliminary proceeding that is held to determine whether a matter is to be committed to the Supreme Court for determination by a judge (or judge and jury if the matter is going to trial). Committal proceedings in the NT are governed by the Local Court (Criminal Procedure) Act 1928.
If a magistrate is satisfied, after a committal proceeding, that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding of guilt, he or she will commit the matter to the Supreme Court. If there is insufficient evidence, the matter will be dismissed.
Committals serve as an opportunity for the defence to test the strength of the prosecution case ahead of the trial. They also ensure that the Supreme Court’s time is not wasted by trying unmeritorious matters where is there little prospect of a conviction.
There are two types of committal proceeding in the NT: oral committals and hand-up committals.
An oral committal, or preliminary examination, is generally held when the accused is pleading not guilty. An oral committal may also be held in a matter where the accused does not wish to indicate a plea at the committal stage.
At an oral committal, each of the prosecution witnesses will be called to give oral evidence. The accused or their legal representative will then have the opportunity to cross-examine each witness to assess the strength of their evidence.
The defence may use an oral committal as an opportunity to challenge the prosecution case and try to have a matter dismissed rather than committed to the Supreme Court.
If the magistrate is satisfied that the evidence is sufficient to support a finding of guilt after hearing the evidence, they will commit the matter to the Supreme Court. If they do not consider the evidence could support a finding of guilt, the matter will be dismissed.
While there are advantages to holding an oral committal from the defence point of view, there are also disadvantages. One disadvantage is that holding an oral committal can alert the prosecution to the argument that the defence is intending to run at the trial. This means the prosecution may perform better at the trial as it will know what to expect. Furthermore, an oral committal can be costly to run and if the matter proceeds to trial, the accused will also have to bear the costs of running the trial.
A hand-up committal is generally held when an accused is pleading guilty. This is the case in the majority of matters that are committed to the NT Supreme Court.
At a hand-up committal the defence and prosecution hand up a brief of evidence containing a summary of the prosecution case including witness statements. The brief of evidence is handed up by consent between the parties, meaning that the defence waives the right to challenge the prosecution evidence as occurs in an oral committal.
The magistrate will review the brief of evidence and, if satisfied that the evidence is sufficient, commit the matter to the Supreme Court.
Indictable offences dealt with summarily
In some cases, a person will be charged with an indictable offence, but the matter will be finalised by a magistrate. This often occurs with indictable offences such as stealing and assault. It cannot occur with very serious indictable offences such as rape or murder. These matters can only be finalised in the Supreme Court.
When an indictable offence is dealt with summarily, both the defence and prosecution agree that the matter can be satisfactorily dealt with in a lower court. The matter can then be adjourned for a plea hearing or contested hearing in the Magistrates Court or Children’s Court. No committal proceeding is necessary as the matter remains in the lower court.
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