Not everyone can afford a private criminal lawyer.
If you can’t afford a lawyer and are not eligible for legal aid, the following information may help you to represent yourself in court or at least gain an understanding of the court process.
Going to Court is a nerve-racking experience for most people.
However, your day in Court will be a little easier if you know how to prepare, who’s who in the courtroom, who does what, what you’re supposed to do, and how it all works.
Get legal advice as soon as possible
The consequences of being convicted of a criminal offence can be severe.
Apart from the Court penalty (eg prison, fine, community service etc), the conviction will go on your criminal record, possibly reducing your job prospects and overseas travel opportunities.
Even relatively minor offences such as driving without a licence, possession of small amounts of drugs, minor assaults etc can carry harsh consequences.
If you are given a court date, there are a number of criminal defence firms that offer a free first appointment where you can obtain advice about the charges, your options and the best way forward.
If you would like to book an appointment with Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, you can call us anytime on 9261 8881.
Carefully read the allegations and take notes
Whether or not you engage a lawyer, you should carefully read the allegations against you (they are contained in the Court Attendance Notice), taking special note of anything that isn’t right or that has been left out.
You should then write down in your own words everything that actually occurred at the time of the alleged offence.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember everything or if some of the things aren’t really relevant; the important thing is that you record the events while they are still relatively fresh in your memory.
If you eventually choose to engage Sydney Criminal Lawyers® or another law firm, your notes will help us understand and effectively present your case in Court.
Get all your papers ready
Put all your documents together, including your version of the events, your bail undertaking, the Court Attendance Notice or the facts/charge sheets, etc.
If you are coming to see a lawyer from Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, give the documents to us as soon as possible.
If not, bring them to court with you.
Request an interpreter if you need one
If English is not your best language, ring the Court Registry (office) and ask them to arrange an interpreter for your Court appearance.
You should do this as early as possible to ensure that an interpreter is available. The service is free and Sydney Criminal Lawyers® can arrange an interpreter on your behalf.
Be sure of the date, time and place
Always check and record your Court date and time.
That information will appear in the Court Attendance Notice, the charge sheet and/or your bail form.
The Court address will also appear in those documents.
If you don’t have the documents, ring and ask the relevant police station (ie the police that arrested you or sent the Court Attendance Notice). Althernatively, as Sydney Criminal Lawyers® to do this on your behalf.
If you don’t know the address of the Courthouse, click on: Courts in NSW.
If your matter has already been to Court and you are unsure of the next Court date, ring and ask the Court Registry or ask Sydney Criminal Lawyers® to do this on your behalf.
Note: if you fail to appear in Court, your matter may be decided in your absence and/or a warrant may be issued for your arrest.
How can Sydney Criminal Lawyers® help me?
If you are summoned or charged, you can contact Sydney Criminal Lawyers® anytime for assistance
- advise you of your rights;
- explain the charges against you;
- explain your alternatives;
- make a bail application for you in Court (if you are refused bail by police); and
- represent you at your Court hearing.
So you’ve obtained legal advice, thought about your options, put together your papers and arrived at the Courthouse early with a pen and paper.
What do I do when I get to the Courthouse?
Find out where your matter will be heard.
The first thing is to check which Courtroom your matter will be heard in.
All the matters for the day will be listed on sheets posted in the Court foyer (or some other common area).
The list will tell you the Courtroom and the number of your matter.
Write down the matter number. If you can’t find you’re matter or it’s not on the list, ask a Court Officer to help you.
Get advice from a lawyer, if you haven’t already done so
If you haven’t seen Sydney Criminal Lawyers® yet, you can look for the ‘legal aid duty lawyer’, who will be in a designated room within the Courthouse.
That lawyer can give you free advice about your case. He or she can also advise you how to ‘adjourn’ your case, which means how to ask the Magistrate to come back on another day.
Wait for your turn
You will then have to wait until your case is called.
If you don’t have have a criminal lawyer, it is a good idea to wait inside the Courtroom and watch the private criminal lawyers (who usually go first) present their clients’ cases.
If you wait outside the Courtroom, a Court officer will come out and call you when your matter is reached.
If you don’t have a criminal lawyer, you should be prepared to wait all day for your turn.
Who’s Who in the Local Court?
When you walk into the Courtroom, you will notice various people standing or sitting at various places.
Each person has a specific and important function, and it helpful to know what each one does.
Who Does What?
1. The Magistrate
The Magistrate decides what happens in your case.
If you plead guilty or are found guilty, he or she will decide the penalty.
If you ask for bail or an adjournment, the Magistrate will decide whether or not to grant it.
2. The Prosecutor
It is the Prosecutor’s job to present the case against you.
In less serious matters (called ‘summary’ matters), the Prosecutor will be a police officer with some basic legal training.
In more serious matters (called ‘indictable’ matters), the Prosecutor will be a lawyer from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
3. The Defence solicitor
This is your criminal lawyer, who’s job it is to protect your interests.
He or she must advise you about the law and your options, including whether you should plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not ‘guilty’.
Whatever you are advised, you should be aware that how you plead (‘guilty’ / ‘not guilty’) is ultimately up to you, not your criminal lawyer.
There may be several criminal lawyers at the ‘bar table’ at any one time.
4. The Court Monitor
The Court Monitor ensures that everything said in Court is audio-taped.
5. The Court Officer
The Court Officer is there to ensure the smooth running of the Court list.
He or she will call you when your matter is reached, assist you if you can’t find your name on the list, and undertake general administrative duties for the Magistrate.
If you have an emergency and can’t wait your turn, the Court Officer can inform the Magistrate who may consider calling your matter more quickly.
If the Court Officer is busy, ask an officer in the Court Registry (office) to help you.
6. The Public
Anyone can sit and watch proceedings in the public area of any Courtroom, except in the Children’s Court and in special cases where the Magistrate or Judge orders a ‘closed Court’.
In such cases, a ‘closed Court’ sign will be posted outside the Courtroom.
It is always a good idea to attend Court and familiarise yourself with the Court process before the day of your hearing.
Also feel free to bring family and friends along to support you at your hearing.
Both you (the defendant) and the prosecution can bring witnesses to Court to give their version of the events.
Witnesses sit outside the Courtroom until they are called to the witness box.
What do I do when my matter is called?
When your matter is called, walk towards the front of the Court.
Make sure you bow to the Magistrate as you enter and leave the Courtroom.
If you have a lawyer representing you, sit behind him or her just in front of the public area; your lawyer will do the talking for you.
If you don’t have a lawyer, the Court Officer will direct you to a position in the Court; usually a microphone next to the ‘bar table’ where the lawyers are sitting.
First time matter is in Court
If you don’t have a criminal lawyer, the Magistrate will ask you a number of questions. The first questions will usually be something like:
- Are you ……………………? (your name)
- Do you have a criminal lawyer representing you?
- Are you ready to have your matter dealt with today?
You should address the Magistrate as ‘your Honour’.
If you are ready to proceed, the Magistrate will read out the charges against you, and then ask you to plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.
You should never plead guilty until you have received legal advice from a criminal lawyer.
What if I’m not ready or my lawyer doesn’t turn up?
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® will always turn up to your court case on time.
If you’re lawyer doesn’t turn up or if you’re not ready (eg because you want to get more advice), ask the Magistrate to stand the matter over to another day.
This is called ‘seeking an adjournment’.
You shouldn’t have a problem getting an adjournment on the first Court day, provided that you tell the Magistrate why you need one.
If you intend to plead ‘guilty’, it is a good idea to bring 3 written character references to Court with you.
Our Character Reference Guide will help your ‘referees’ (ie the people who give you a reference) properly prepare their references.
When you plead ‘guilty’, the Prosecutor will hand a copy of the police version of the events (called the ‘police facts’) to the Court.
The Magistrate may then ask you if you agree with those ‘facts’.
You should tell the Magistrate if there is anything you don’t agree with.
The Prosecutor will then hand up to the Magistrate a bundle of documents, which will include the ‘facts’, your criminal record and your traffic record (if it is a traffic offence).
It may also include witness statements against you, your record of interview with police (if you gave one) and other evidence.
After reading those documents, the Magistrate will ask you if you have anything to say.
If you have brought character references, you should say ‘may I hand up some character references Your Honour’.
The Court Officer will take the references from you and give them to the Magistrate.
After the Magistrate has read the references, he or she will again ask you if you have anything to say. At this point, you should tell the Court a little about yourself (eg if you are employed, what type of work you do, if you have any children, and any positive things about yourself, such as charity work you do etc) and give an explanation of how and why the offence occurred.
If you’re financial situation is bad, you should tell the Magistrate, so that he or she may consider reducing any fine.
Whatever you say, it is important that you accept your guilt, rather than just make excuses or blame others for your actions.
You should show that you are genuinely sorry for what you did and that it won’t happen again.
The Magistrate will then decide your penalty.
If the charges are serious and there is a possibility of a prison sentence, the Magistrate may order a ‘pre-sentence report’ (PSR) and adjourn the matter to another day.
A PSR is a report to the Court by the ‘Probation and Parole Service’.
It outlines many things about you and about the offence; such as who you are, why you may have committed the offence, whether you are genuinely sorry, whether it is likely that you will re-offend etc.
It also outlines the sentencing options available in your case eg bond, community service etc.
The Magistrate will consider the report before sentencing you.
After a PSR is ordered, an officer from the Probation and Parole Service will arrange to meet you for an interview.
An ‘options PSR’ is a short report that can be done on the day of court. A ‘full PSR’ is a longer report usually takes 6-8 weeks to prepare.
Pleading ‘not guilty’
If you plead ‘not guilty’, the Magistrate will give you a ‘hearing date’, which is when witnesses will attend the Court to give evidence against you.
You can also bring witnesses and supporting materials (eg documents, photos etc) to the hearing.
On the day of the hearing, your matter will be called and you will be shown to the ‘bar-table’ (where the criminal lawyers sit).
The Prosecutor will then tell the Magistrate a little about the case, after which the Prosecutor will call and question witnesses one at a time (this is called ‘examination-in-chief’).
You should take notes of any answers you feel are wrong or anything you might want to ask each witness.
After the Prosecutor has finished with a witness, you will be able to ask that witness questions (this is called ‘cross-examination’)
Finally, if your questions raise new facts or issues that weren’t raised by the Prosecutor’s questions, the Prosecutor may then ask the witness questions about those facts or issues only (this is called ‘re-examination’, and is a little more complicated).
So there can be three stages in questioning a witness: examination-in-chief, cross-examination, and re-examination.
After all the prosecution witnesses have given their evidence, you may then call your witnesses and ask them questions (your ‘examination-in-chief’).
The Prosecutor will have the opportunity to ‘cross-examine’ each of your witnesses.
And lastly, if the Prosecutor’s questions raised new matters or issues, you can ‘re-examine’ your witness about those things only.
After the questioning has finished, you will be given a chance to comment on all of the evidence (this is called a ‘closing statement’).
You should point out the strengths in your case (eg how your witness gave credible evidence to support your version of the events) and any weaknesses in the Prosecution case.
When you have finished, the Prosecutor will give his or her ‘closing statement’.
The Magistrate will then decide whether to dismiss the charges (ie find you ‘not guilty’) or to convict you (ie find you ‘guilty’).
It is important to keep in mind that the prosecution must prove the charges against you beyond reasonable doubt.
If it fails to do this, the charges against you must be dismissed, and you will be free to go without penalty.
For more information on examination in chief, cross examination, re-examination and closing statements, see next topic: ‘General Stages in a District or Supreme Court Trial’.
What is a ‘committal hearing’?
If you have been charged with a serious offence (called an ‘indictable offence’), a Local Court date may be set down for a Magistrate to decide whether there is enough evidence for your case to go to the District or Supreme Court for a trial before a judge and jury.
This procedure is called a ‘committal hearing’.
You don’t have to enter a plea at the committal hearing.
However, if you plead ‘not guilty’ and the Magistrate decides that there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to convict you, your case will be sent to trial; this is called being ‘committed to stand trial’.
If you plead ‘guilty’, your matter will be listed for sentencing in the District or Supreme Court; this is called being ‘committed for sentencing’.
If you wish to have a certain prosecution witness brought to the committal hearing, you must let the Magistrate know on the Court date before the committal hearing.
So, if you go to Court on 5th June and the Prosecutor wants to set a committal hearing for 28th June, you must tell the Magistrate on 5th June that you want a particular witness brought to the committal.
The Magistrate will then set a separate Court date for you to explain why you want that particular witness brought to the committal hearing (eg you may want to question the witness about inconsistencies in his statement to police).
This is called a section 91 application.
What happens after the ‘committal hearing’?
If you are ‘committed to stand trial’, the Director of Public Prosecutions will prepare a document that lists each charge being brought against you.
That document is called an ‘indictment’.
There may be several charges on the indictment and each charge is called a ‘count’. The indictment is then sent to the appropriate District or Supreme Court, which will list the matter for trial.
See next topic: ‘General stages in a District or Supreme Court Trial’
How can Sydney Criminal Lawyers® help me?
If you are charged with a criminal or traffic offence, feel free to contact us on 9261 8881 for assistance.
- advise you of your rights;
- explain the charges against you;
- explain your alternatives;
- make a bail application for you in Court (if you are refused bail by police); and represent you at your Court hearing.
The video below gives a basic guide for unrepresented defendants on what to wear to court for a criminal or traffic case.