Pleading Not Guilty (NT)
In the Northern Territory, criminal matters are either dealt with in the summary jurisdiction (Magistrates Court or Children’s Court) or on indictment (in the Supreme Court). When a person pleads not guilty to offences in the Local Court or Children’s Court, the matter will proceed to a contested hearing. At the contested hearing, the prosecution will try to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This article outlines the processes and considerations involved when pleading not guilty in the summary jurisdiction in the NT.
Brief of evidence
If an accused person indicates that they are pleading not guilty in the NT, the prosecution will be required to serve the brief of evidence on the defence. The brief of evidence is a summary of all the evidence that the prosecution is planning to rely on at the hearing. It may include witness statements, CCTV footage, DNA evidence, expert evidence, child forensic interviews (CFIs) and an electronic record of the interview (EROI) that the accused completed with the police. It may also include medical evidence, particularly where there are physical injuries alleged to be the result of violence.
The defence should review the brief of evidence carefully. If it appears that the prosecution has a strong case, it may be advisable for the accused to change their plea to guilty at this point. The court gives a sentencing discount to defendants who plead guilty in consideration of the fact that they have admitted the offending and saved the court the time and expense of running a hearing. If a person is likely to be found guilty after a hearing, they should consider pleading guilty to take advantage of this discount.
If it appears that the defence has a good chance of defeating the charge, it will proceed to the next procedural stage.
Once the brief of evidence has been served on the defence, the parties must attend a directions hearing. Directions hearings are governed by section 60AJ of the Local Court (Criminal Procedure) Act 1928.
At the directions hearing, the prosecution must indicate whether there is any evidence that has yet to be disclosed to the defence, how long the hearing is likely to take and any orders it is likely to seek.
The defence must indicate how the accused will plead, which issues are in dispute, whether the accused intend to rely on an alibi, how long the defence estimates the hearing will take and any order it is likely to seek.
At the directions hearing, the court may make orders that one or both parties must disclose information to the other. It may then set a date for the contested hearing, or, if necessary, set a date for a further directions hearing.
The day of the hearing
When a person is pleading not guilty in the NT, they must confirm the hearing date with the court. This must occur no less than seven days before the date of the hearing. both defence and prosecution must advise the court that they are ready to proceed with the hearing.
On the day of the hearing, the accused must enter their plea. The prosecution will then call evidence and the defence will have the opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. The prosecution will then make submissions and close its case.
The defence will then have the opportunity to call witnesses. The prosecution will be able to cross-examine the defence witnesses. The defence will then make submissions and close its case.
The magistrate will then deliver his or her judgment. This may occur on the same day, or the matter may be adjourned for the decision to be handed down on another date. If the accused is found guilty, the magistrate will decide on the appropriate sentence.
When should a person plead not guilty?
There are a number of situations where it is advisable for an accused person to plead not guilty.
A person should plead not guilty if they did not commit the offence or if they committed the physical acts alleged, but have a valid legal defence – for example, they hit someone in self-defence.
A person should also plead not guilty if they believe that the prosecution cannot prove all the elements of the offence or that they were the person who committed the offence. This may be because there were no eyewitnesses or because there are inconsistencies between the accounts of different witnesses.
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