Committal Hearings in South Australia
In South Australia, some criminal matters are dealt with in the Magistrates Court, while others are dealt with in the Supreme Court and District Court. When a matter is to be finalised in the higher courts, it must first go through a committal procedure in the Magistrates Court. This page deals with committal hearings in South Australia, which are governed by the Criminal Procedure Act 1921.
Which matters must go through a committal hearing?
Minor offences, also known as summary offences, are finalised in the lower courts and do not go through committal proceedings.
Major indictable offences, such as murder and manslaughter, can only be finalised in the higher courts, and these matters must always go through a committal hearing before they can be transferred to a higher court.
Minor indictable offences such as assault and stealing, are offences with a maximum penalty of no more than five years imprisonment. These offences can be dealt with in the Magistrates Court if the accused agrees to this. However, if the accused wishes to be tried by a jury for a minor indictable offence, the matter will need to go through a committal proceeding first.
What is the purpose of committal hearings?
Committal hearings exist to determine whether the evidence against the accused is strong enough that it could support a finding a of guilt. If the case is sufficiently strong, the matter will be committed to a higher court. If the evidence is not strong enough that a jury could find the defendant guilty, the matter will be dismissed.
Committal hearings exist to ensure that weak or vexatious prosecutions do not reach the Supreme Court or District Court. They allow such matters to be eliminated by a magistrate so that the higher courts’ time is not wasted.
Committals also give the defence the opportunity to try out possible arguments prior to the trial.
What happens at a committal hearing?
Committal hearings are also known as ‘answer charge hearings’. At a committal hearing, the accused is asked to enter a plea. In South Australia, different committal processes are followed depending on how the accused pleads.
Committal hearings where accused pleading not guilty
If the accused pleads not guilty, the court will proceed to hear oral evidence from the prosecution witnesses, who will be subjected to questioning by the defence. The defence will also have the opportunity to call evidence. The court will then either commit the matter or dismiss the matter.
Committal hearings where accused pleading guilty
If the accused enters a plea of guilty at the answer charge hearing, the court will review the brief of evidence and assess whether the case is strong enough to be committed to a higher court. It will then either commit the matter, or dismiss the matter, without the need for any oral evidence.
Advantages and disadvantages of defence witnesses giving evidence
At a committal hearing where the accused pleads not guilty, the defence may call witnesses. However, it is not always advisable for them to do so. There are advantages and disadvantages to calling witnesses for the defence at a committal.
Calling defence witnesses may expose weaknesses in the prosecution case, which may lead to the matter being dismissed. It also gives the defence a chance to try out possible lines of argument for use at the trial and to see how its own witnesses are likely to perform.
However, calling defence witnesses can also give the prosecution a ‘heads up’ about the defence the accused is going to rely on at the trial, giving the prosecutor the chance to better prepare and to address weaknesses in the crown case.
Calling defence witnesses may also add to the expense of running a committal hearing, on top of the expense of running the trial, should the matter go on to be committed.
Committal hearings in the Youth Court
When a person under 18 is charged with a major indictable offence or a minor indictable offence that is to be dealt with on indictment, they must go through a committal hearing. This will be held in the Youth Court.
Committal hearings in the Youth Court involve the same procedures outlined above.
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