Limitation Period for Criminal Charges (NT)

When a person is alleged to have committed a criminal offence in the NT, the police may subsequently lay charges and prosecute the person. The period of time that the police have to commence a prosecution depends on the nature of the charges. This article deals with the limitation periods for laying criminal charges in the NT.

Complaints

Summary offences are offences that are finalised in the Local Court and Children’s Court. They are punishable by a maximum penalty of no more than two years imprisonment and prosecutions are initiated by the filing of a complaint in the Local Court.   

Summary offences include traffic offences and public disorder offences such as disorderly conduct, trespass and nuisance.

Under section 52 of the Local Court (Criminal Procedure) Act 1928, a complaint must be made within six months of the date of the alleged offence except where the legislation specifies otherwise. Once this limitation period has elapsed, the person cannot be charged.

Information

Indictable offences are offences that are finalised on information in the Supreme Court. Some indictable offences can also be finalised in the summary jurisdiction with the consent of defence and prosecution.

Indictable offences include murder, assault, stealing, sexual offences and robbery.

There is no limitation period in relation to laying a charge for an indictable offence in the NT. This means that police can initiate a prosecution for an indictable offence at any time after the alleged offence occurred.

In some cases, years, or even decades, may have passed since an indictable offence occurred by the time a prosecution is initiated. However, it may be more difficult to prove a person guilty of an indictable offence if a lot of time has passed since its commission as some evidence may no longer be available.

Historical offences

Offences that allegedly occurred a long time ago are sometimes referred to as ‘historical offences’. There is a range of reasons that a person may be prosecuted for an indictable offence many years after it happened.

Some of these are listed below.

  • A sexual offence was committed against a child. The victim, now an adult, has recently made a statement to police and is willing to give evidence against the accused.
  • There was insufficient evidence to prosecute a suspect at the time an offence occurred. In the intervening years, forensic technology has improved, and a successful prosecution is now possible with the benefit of DNA evidence.
  • The accused was uncontactable for a long period of time and could not be arrested and charged. They have now been located.

Sentencing for historical offences

When a person is sentenced in relation to historical offences, the court must take into account their circumstances at the time of the offence as well as their circumstances at the time of sentencing.

In the NT, if the maximum penalty applicable to an offence has increased since the offence was committed, this must not be taken into account at sentencing. However, if the maximum penalty has been reduced, this applies to offences committed before the change came into effect, provided the accused has not already been sentenced (section 121, Sentencing Act 1995).

This provision is consistent with the large body of case law that exists across all Australian jurisdictions that holds that offenders ought to be sentenced for historical offences with regard to the sentencing practices and patterns at the time the offences were committed.

Seek legal advice

If you have been charged with historical offences in the NT, it is advisable to seek legal advice as soon as possible. A lawyer can assess the strength of the case against you and provide you with thorough advice as to all your options for finalising the charges.

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

Author

Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. She practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection, domestic violence and family law in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
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