The Magistrates’ Court is the name of the lowest court in the hierarchy in all Australian States (with the exception of New South Wales, where it is called the Local Court). The Magistrates’ Court has original jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal matters. It deals with more of these matters than any other court (around 90 percent of civil cases and 95 percent of criminal cases are dealt with in these courts). The Magistrates’ Court hears all summary offences and a considerable number of indictable offences tried summarily (that is, without a jury). The Magistrates’ Court also conducts committal hearings for more serious indictable offences, to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for the matter to proceed to trial in a higher court.
The Magistrates’ Court hears all summary offences, where the accused does not have the right to a jury trial. These comparatively minor offences comprise most of the criminal matters dealt with by Australian courts. Examples of summary offences include driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, public drunkenness, minor assaults, offensive behaviour and failure to pay fines. The Magistrates’ Court can also hear indictable offences summarily, that is, before the magistrate and no jury. Some indictable offences that are often dealt with summarily in the Magistrates’ Court are theft or robbery of property less than $100,00, recklessly causing serious injury, sexual offences or indecent assaults not involving penetration, and threats to kill or inflict serious injury.
For indictable offences to be tried summarily, a number of conditions must be met.
- The offence must be ‘under’ a certain level of seriousness, determined by its maximum penalty. Only indictable offences with a maximum sanction less than 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine less than $120,000 can be heard summarily in the Magistrates’ Court. This rules out offences like murder, manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, rape or drug-trafficking of certain amounts.
- The prosecutor or defendant must also apply to have the matter heard summarily. In most cases, this is done by the defendant, as it has two significant advantages. First, the trial will be conducted quickly and with less cost, such as fees for legal representation. Secondly, there are limits to the sanctions that can be handed down by the Magistrates’ Court. In Victoria, for example, magistrates can hand down a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment for a single offence, and five years’ imprisonment for multiple offences.
- The Magistrates’ Court must also approve the application for a summary hearing. This is granted in most cases, since it eases the workload on higher courts. If the court believes the matter is too serious, too complex or may warrant a jury trial, it can reject the application.
Like judges in higher courts, magistrates can also issue warrants (a document authorising the police, sheriff or other agency to carry out certain acts). Warrants may authorise the arrest of a non-appearing defendant, the seizure of money or goods, or the search of a premise as part of a criminal investigation. Magistrates can also consider bail applications, where persons charged with a serious indictable offence request not to be remanded in custody.
Before serious indictable offences can be heard by a higher court, they must be examined by a committal hearing in the Magistrates’ Court. A committal is a brief hearing that determines whether sufficient evidence exists for the matter to proceed to trial. The magistrate hears submissions and evidence from the prosecution, while the accused person is required to enter a plea. The magistrate then decides whether a prima facie case exists. If it does, he or she will commit it for trial in a higher court.
The Magistrates’ Court can hear civil disputes involving money or property up to a value of $100,000. Some examples of common civil matters heard in the Magistrates’ Court include the recovery of unpaid or outstanding debts, claims for damages or lost income, breach of contract disputes, resolution of some neighbourhood disputes, and damages for a workplace injury. The court will generally not consider matters involving less than $10,000 – they will instead be directed to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or a small claims list, such as that of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). In special circumstances, a case concerning less than $10,000 may be heard by the Magistrates’ Court, if the matter involves a complex or important question of law.
The Magistrates’ Court can also, on application, issue intervention orders to protect the applicant from particular individuals. Intervention orders are granted to halt or prevent family violence, such as spousal or child abuse, or to stop an individual from ‘stalking’ the applicant. The Magistrates’ Court also has some jurisdiction to deal with family law matters, such as child maintenance, contact and residence orders.
In criminal law, verdicts and sentences made in the Magistrates’ Court can be appealed in the County Court, which conducts a re-hearing of the case. The County Court judge can decide to reduce or increase the sentence, or dismiss the case and set aside the conviction or finding of guilt. The County Court’s appellate ruling can be appealed further to the Supreme Court, though only on a point of law. In civil law, the only avenue of appeal from a Magistrates’ Court ruling is an appeal on a point of law to the Supreme Court (Court of Appeal). Since the Magistrates’ Court is the lowest court in the hierarchy, it does not hear appeals from other courts.