Being charged with a criminal offence can be a daunting and confronting experience – so it’s natural to try and put things to the back of your mind until you feel ready to deal with them.
As criminal lawyers, we often receive calls from clients the day before – or even the morning of – their court date asking for advice and representation. While we are usually able to sit down and speak with clients about their options, the delay can mean the case must be postponed – costing time and money.
Those who seek legal advice early are more likely to have time to prepare, and their lawyers will be able to do everything necessary to maximise the prospects of success.
Preparation is the Key
Criminal defence lawyers are tasked with getting the best result for clients – and preparation is extremely important in that regard.
Where a client wishes to plead guilty, good defence lawyers will seek to persuade the magistrate or judge to impose the most lenient penalty available – whether this means staying out of prison or avoiding a criminal record altogether.
Although these ‘sentencing proceedings’ may seem relatively straightforward, there may be things to do which can help secure the best outcome.
For example, if a person wishes to plead guilty to drink driving or other major traffic offence, a good lawyer will often recommend they complete the Traffic Offender Program before they are sentenced by the magistrate.
The Traffic Offender Program is a driver’s education program which aims to provide an insight into the risks of dangerous driving behaviour. These programs can take 6 weeks or more to complete.
In other cases, a client may benefit from an expert medical, psychological, or general counselling report.
The experts who provide these reports are often in very high demand, and it can take weeks to even get an appointment.
When it comes to defended hearings – which is where a person pleads ‘not guilty’ in the Local Court and fights the charges – the lawyer will need time to read the prosecution materials, obtain information which undermines that material through issuing subpoenas etc, and prepare to fight the case.
Approaching a lawyer the day before a defended hearing can mean it is not possible to do everything that can be done to maximise the chances of success. In contrast, giving your lawyer the time to meticulously go through all the materials, conduct any necessary investigations, issue subpoenas, speak to witnesses etc can give you the upper hand when it comes to fighting your case in court.
In many cases, lawyers will be able to get charges dropped or reduced by sending a detailed letter to the prosecution which argues that the case cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt. These letters are called ‘representations’ and can help people get on with their lives as soon as possible. However, the prosecution can take several weeks to consider representations, so this option could be unavailable unless you approach a lawyer early on.
Getting an Adjournment
While courts are often willing to grant adjournments, they are by no means compelled to do so – and magistrates have discretion to refuse adjournments unless there are good reasons to grant them.
In fact, a Local Court Practice Note has been published which sets out the various timetables and adjournments that the court should give. For instance, the Note states:
- Where a person pleads not guilty, the court is to make orders for the brief of evidence to be served in 4 weeks, and to adjourn the case for reply in 6 weeks; and
- The court should list the case for hearing at the earliest available opportunity on the second mention date.
It also states that:
‘Adjournments or other variations to the above timetable will not be granted unless the court is satisfied that departure from the timetable is in the interests of justice.’
Courts are not usually willing to adjourn a case if it is listed for hearing, unless there are very good reasons to do so.
So while it can be tough to pick up the phone and call a lawyer, not doing so could hurt your chances of getting the best possible result. Many lawyers offer a free first conference to discuss your options, the best way forward and the likely outcome – so why not pick up the phone and call?