Committal Hearings in Western Australia
In Western Australia, criminal offences are either simple offences, either way offences, or indictable offences. While simple offences are minor offences that are finalised in the Magistrates Court, more serious offences must be finalised in either the Supreme Court or the District Court. Before a matter is transferred to a higher court, it must go through a committal hearing. This page deals with committal hearings in Western Australia.
Which offences must go through a committal?
In Western Australia, all indictable offences must go through a committal procedure before they can be finalised. Indictable offences in WA include murder, robbery and sexual penetration without consent.
Either way offences may also be dealt with in a higher court and when this occurs, a committal hearing is required. Either way offences include fraud, indecent assault and possessing stolen property.
What is a committal hearing?
A committal hearing (also known as a disclosure committal) is a pre-trial procedure that is held to assess the strength of the case against an accused person. It is held in the Magistrates Court. If the magistrate considers there is enough evidence against the accused that a jury properly instructed could find them guilty, they will commit the matter to a higher court. If they do not consider the case is strong enough to support a finding of guilt, they will dismiss the matter.
During a committal hearing, the accused is required to enter a plea. Prosecution witnesses are then questioned by the defence in order to test their evidence. The defence may also call evidence if it chooses to do so.
The procedures for disclosure hearings are set out in section 44 of the Criminal Procedures Act 2004.
What is an administrative committal?
If both parties consent to a matter being committed to a higher court without holding a committal hearing, the charges can go through an administrative committal instead. In an administrative committal, the court receives a copy of the brief of evidence, and after reviewing the evidence on the papers, decides whether the evidence is sufficient to commit the matter to a higher court.
Administrative committals avoid the need for witnesses to give oral evidence and are quicker and less costly than running a committal hearing. They are commonly held when the accused is planning to plead guilty.
The procedures for administrative committals are set out in section 43 of the Criminal Procedures Act 2004.
What is the purpose of committals?
Committal procedures exist to ensure that weak and vexatious prosecutions do not proceed to the higher courts. They allow the lower courts to eliminate matters that are unlikely to lead to a conviction to avoid wasting the time of the higher courts.
Committals also allow the defence to test the prosecution evidence and try out possible arguments. They also give the witnesses the opportunity to prepare for giving evidence at the trial.
Advantages and disadvantages of disclosure committals
There are both advantages and disadvantages to holding a disclosure committal. Whether it is advisable to have a disclosure committal will depend on a range of factors, including the nature of the evidence, the defence that is being run and how the accused is pleading.
The advantages of a disclosure committal for the defence include having the opportunity to test the evidence of prosecution witnesses and if the case is weak, to have the matter dismissed at an early stage. If the defence chooses to call evidence at the disclosure committal, this can also provide the accused with the chance to explore possible arguments to run at trial.
The disadvantages of a disclosure committal include alerting the prosecution to the defence that is going to be run at trial, requiring witnesses to give evidence twice, and the significant cost of running a disclosure committal as well as a trial.
Committals in the Children’s Court
When a person under the age of 18 is charged with an indictable offence in WA, the committal hearing or disclosure committal is held in the Children’s Court. All of the same procedures described above apply when a matter is committed in the Children’s Court.
The Children’s Court can also commit a matter to a higher court if it considers that the jurisdictional limits that apply in the Children’s Court do not allow it to deal with a matter adequately. When the Children’s Court is sentencing young offenders, the maximum penalty it can impose for a single offence is:
- 12 months detention;
- Three months imprisonment for an offender under the age of 18
- Six months imprisonment for an offender over the age of 18
Under section 21 of the Children’s Court of Western Australia Act 1988, when the Children’s Court is dealing with a young person in a matter that is so serious that they cannot be sentenced appropriately in the Children’s Court, it may commit the matter to a higher court for sentencing.
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