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4513.0 - Criminal Courts, Australia, 2003-04  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 11/02/2005   
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SUMMARY OF FINDINGS



INTRODUCTION

This publication presents statistics relating to the criminal jurisdiction of the Higher (Supreme and Intermediate) and Magistrates' Courts of Australia, for the period 1 July 2003-30 June 2004. The criminal jurisdiction of the courts is responsible for trying and sentencing persons and organisations charged with criminal offences.

The publication provides a picture of the characteristics of defendants dealt with by the Higher Courts and Magistrates' Courts of Australia, including information on the offences and sentences associated with those defendants.

Summary data relating to the Higher Courts are available for individual years from 1996-97 onwards. A comparison of Higher Court offence data from 2001-02 onwards has also been provided.

There are significant differences between the states and territories in the way the Higher Courts and Magistrates' Courts systems are structured and how criminal cases are allocated between court levels. For example, legislation differs between states and territories regarding which offences can be heard summarily in the Magistrates' Courts and which offences must be indicted to a Higher Court. Caution should therefore be taken into account when making comparisons between the data presented for the states and territories.

The Explanatory Notes provide detailed information on data sources, counting rules and other technical matters associated with this publication.


SUMMARY CHARACTERISTICS OF DEFENDANTS

Defendants finalised

In 2003-04, 544,689 defendants were finalised in the Higher and Magistrates' Courts in Australia. Of these, 17,315 (3%) were in the Higher Courts and 527,374 (97%) were in the Magistrates' Courts (see table 1).

The number of defendants finalised in the Higher Courts increased by 4% from the 16,643 defendants finalised in 2002-03 (see table 14). The increase was mainly influenced by a 23% increase of finalisations in Victoria. During 2003-04 the Victorian Higher Courts focused judicial resources on the criminal jurisdiction to reduce durations for contested criminal trials and to reduce the backlog of cases. Over the past eight years, and excluding bench warrants prior to 2002-03, the number of defendants finalised in the Higher Courts has fluctuated from a low of 15,281 in 1996-97 to a high of 18,864 in 1999-2000.

HIGHER COURTS DEFENDANTS FINALISED(a)
Graph: HIGHER COURTS DEFENDANTS FINALISED, Time series


Defendants finalised - Method of finalisation

Approximately 87% (15,003) of defendants finalised in the Higher Courts were adjudicated. Of those adjudicated, 93% (13,950) were proven guilty (i.e. pleaded guilty or were declared guilty at trial) and 7% (1,053) were acquitted. Of those proven guilty, 90% (12,576) pleaded guilty and 10% (1,376) were declared guilty at trial (see table 11). The remaining 13% (2,312) of defendants were finalised by a non-adjudicated method such as all charges withdrawn by the prosecution.

Approximately 88% (466,661) of defendants finalised in the Magistrates' Courts were adjudicated. Of those adjudicated, 96% (447,863) were proven guilty (i.e. pleaded guilty or were declared guilty) and 4% (18,787) were acquitted. There were 12% (60,706) of defendants finalised by a non-adjudicated method (such as all charges withdrawn by the prosecution) or transferred to another court level.

Magistrates' Courts data include counts of finalised appearances in New South Wales (see paragraph 14 in the Explanatory Notes). This may result in an over count of defendants for this state.

Age and sex

For males, the age group with the highest number of finalised defendants was 20-24 years (22%) while for females it was 35-44 years (21%). Males represented the majority of finalised defendants (78%). Of all defendants finalised during 2003-04, half were males aged less than 35 years (see table 1).
DEFENDANTS FINALISED(a)(b), Age by sex
Graph: DEFENDANTS FINALISED, Age by sex



DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED

Principal offence

Offence data refer to the principal offence adjudicated by the court (see paragraphs 31-34 of the Explanatory Notes for discussion of principal offence).

Defendants were more likely to be adjudicated in the Higher Courts for principal offences (Australian Standard Offence Classification Divisions, see Appendix 2) of: Acts intended to cause injury (21%); Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter (15%); Illicit drug offences (14%); and Robbery, extortion and related offences and Sexual assault and related offences (both 11%) (see table 4). There were 10,729 (72%) defendants adjudicated by the Higher Courts with a principal offence in one of these five categories.

In comparison, the five principal offences that accounted for the majority of adjudicated defendants in the Magistrates' Courts in 2003-04 were: Road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences (44%); Public order offences (9%); Theft and related offences (8%); and Acts intended to cause injury and Dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons (both 7%). Overall, approximately three of every four defendants adjudicated in the Magistrates' Courts had one of these five principal offences (see table 6).

Due to the large proportion of adjudicated defendants with a principal offence of Road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences, the proportional differences between other principal offences in the Magistrates' Courts is lessened.

When defendants with a principal offence related to traffic (ASOC Division 14 and ASOC Subdivision 041) are excluded from the adjudicated population in the Magistrates' Courts, the five principal offences at the ASOC division level that accounted for the majority of defendants nationally were: Public order offences (19%); Theft and related offences (17%); Acts intended to cause injury (14%); Illicit drug offences (12%); and Offences against justice procedures, government security and government operations (11%).
DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED, Selected principal offences by court level
Graph: DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED, Selected principal offences by court level


Principal offence - Age and sex

In the Higher Courts, the most prevalent principal offence for which both male and female defendants were adjudicated was Acts intended to cause injury (21% and 22% respectively). Proportionally, more females were adjudicated for the principal offence of Deception and related offences (18%) than males (6%). In contrast, there were proportionally more males than females with a principal offence of Sexual assault and related offences (12% and 1% respectively) (see table 3).

Nationally, the proportions of principal offences for defendants adjudicated were different across age groups in the Higher Courts. Defendants within the age group of less than 20 years were more likely to be adjudicated for a principal offence of: Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter (26%); Robbery, extortion and related offences (23%); and Acts intended to cause injury (21%). Those within the age group of 45 years and over were more likely to be adjudicated for: Sexual assault and related offences (27%); Illicit drug offences (20%); and Acts intended to cause injury and Deception and related offences (both 13%).
HIGHER COURTS DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED, Selected principal offences by selected age groups
Graph: HIGHER COURTS DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED, Selected principal offences by selected age groups


In the Magistrates' Courts, the most prevalent principal offence for both male and female adjudicated defendants was Road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences (43% and 46% respectively) (see table 5).

The variation in the proportions of defendants adjudicated in the Magistrates' Courts across age groups was similar for males and females. As age increased the proportions of defendants with a principal offence of Road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences increased. This was the principal offence for 31% of adjudicated defendants aged less than 20 years, increasing to 51% for defendants aged 45 years and over.

Excluding traffic offences, defendants within the age group of less than 20 years were more likely to be adjudicated for a principal offence of Public order offences (24%) and Theft and related offences (23%). Those within the age group of 45 years and over were more likely to be adjudicated for Theft and related offences and Public order offences (both 16%) and Acts intended to cause injury (15%).
MAGISTRATES' COURTS DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED(a), Selected principal offences by selected age groups
Graph: MAGISTRATES' COURTS DEFENDANTS ADJUDICATED, Selected principal offences by selected age groups


Principal offence - Adjudication type

Nationally, 84% of adjudicated defendants in the Higher Courts were finalised by pleading guilty (see table 7). Those with a principal offence of Weapons and explosives offences (96%) and Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter (94%) had the highest proportion of defendants finalised with a plea of guilty. In contrast, adjudicated defendants with a principal offence of Homicide and related offences and Sexual assault and related offences were least likely to plead guilty (53% and 62% respectively) and therefore most likely to have a trial outcome (acquittal or guilty verdict).

Three principal offences accounted for the majority of trial outcomes in the Higher Courts. These were: Sexual assault and related offences (24%); Acts intended to cause injury (23%); and Illicit drug offences (11%). There were 1,413 (58%) adjudicated defendants with a trial outcome in the Higher Courts with one of these three principal offences.

Across all principal offences, the acquittal rate for Higher Court defendants as a proportion of trial outcomes was 43%. The principal offence with the highest acquittal rate (as a proportion of trial outcomes) was Sexual assault and related offences (61%) followed by Acts intended to cause injury (47%). The principal offence with the lowest acquittal rate (as a proportion of trial outcomes) was Illicit drug offences (18%).

Nationally, 93% of adjudicated defendants were proven guilty in the Higher Courts compared with 96% in the Magistrates' Courts. For combined court levels, defendants with a principal offence of Illicit drug offences had the highest proportion of defendants proven guilty (99%). In contrast, defendants adjudicated in the Higher and Magistrates' Courts were most likely to be acquitted for the principal offences of Homicide and related offences (17% and 30% respectively) and Sexual assault and related offences (both 23%).


DEFENDANTS PROVEN GUILTY

Principal sentence - Age and sex

Data on sentences are collected and published for all defendants who are proven guilty. Sentence refers to the principal sentence a defendant receives (see paragraph 40 of the Explanatory Notes for further information).

For combined court levels, males were more than twice as likely as females to receive custodial orders to be served (i.e. custody in a correctional institution/in the community) (8% of males and 3% of females) and were less likely to receive non-custodial orders (87% of males and 93% of females). A similar proportion of males and females received fully suspended sentences (4% and 3% respectively) (see table 8).

Of the defendants receiving a principal sentence of custodial orders to be served, the proportion was highest for those aged 20-24 years (22%), compared to 10% for those aged 45 years and over and 6% for those aged less than 20 years.
DEFENDANTS PROVEN GUILTY, Age by principal sentence
Graph: DEFENDANTS PROVEN GUILTY, Age by principal sentence


Principal sentence - Principal offence

For combined court levels, fully suspended sentences as a principal sentence were greatest for Sexual assault and related offences (18%), followed by Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter (16%) and Robbery, extortion and related offences (13%) (see table 9).

The principal offences most likely to receive a non-custodial principal sentence were Public order offences (96%), and Road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences (95%). The most common non-custodial principal sentence (of all non-custodial orders) was monetary orders for both males (80%) and females (76%).

Defendants proven guilty in the Higher Courts were more likely to receive custodial orders (i.e. custody in a correctional institution/in the community or fully suspended sentences) compared with those in the Magistrates' Courts (78% and 9% respectively). Consistent with this, defendants proven guilty in the Magistrates' Courts were more likely to receive a non-custodial principal sentence compared with those in the Higher Courts (91% and 21% respectively) (see table 10).

Principal sentence - Custodial orders

Custodial orders to be served, as a proportion of all principal sentences in the Higher Courts, varied across principal offences and ranged from 87% for Homicide and related offences, to 36% for Public order offences.

In the Higher Courts, the proportions of custodial orders to be served varied across states and territories, ranging from 49% in South Australia to 85% in the Northern Territory (see table 14).

In the Magistrates' Courts, defendants proven guilty with principal offences of Robbery, extortion and related offences and Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter were more likely to receive a principal sentence of custodial orders (both 51%) (see table 10).

Principal sentence - Non-custodial orders

Approximately, one in five (21%) defendants proven guilty in the Higher Courts received non-custodial orders (includes community supervision/work orders, monetary orders and other non-custodial orders) as their principal sentence.

For defendants proven guilty in the Magistrates' Courts, the most common principal sentence was monetary orders (72%). Monetary orders were most common for the principal offences of Dangerous or negligent acts endangering persons (85%) and Road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences (84%). Other non-custodial orders (i.e. non-custodial orders excluding monetary orders) were most common for the principal offences of Abduction and related offences (52%) and Homicide and related offences (46%). Homicide and related offences were predominately related to driving causing death, which can be heard summarily in some states and territories.


DURATION FROM INITIATION TO FINALISATION

The nature of the charges presented to the court, together with the process required to deal with the charges (which is affected by type of plea), impact on the time required for a court to finalise a case. In general, a plea of 'not guilty' will require more court time than a case where the defendant initially pleads guilty. The complexity of the case, often associated with the type of offence(s) being heard, also impacts on the time required to finalise a case.

Defendants in the Magistrates' Courts are generally finalised in less time than those in the Higher Courts. Almost three in every four defendants were finalised in the Magistrates' Court in less than 13 weeks (see table 12) compared with just over one in four in the Higher Courts for the same period (see table 11).
DEFENDANTS FINALISED, Duration from initiation to finalisation and court level
Graph: DEFENDANTS FINALISED, Duration from initiation to finalisation and court level


Within 26 weeks from initiation, 12% of defendants with a guilty verdict, 59% of defendants with a guilty plea and 21% of acquitted defendants were finalised in the Higher Courts in 2003-04.

In the Magistrates' Courts, 92% of defendants who were proven guilty and 75% of acquitted defendants were finalised within 26 weeks from initiation in 2003-04.


INQUIRIES

For further information about these and related statistics, contact the National Information and Referral Service on 1300 135 070 or Nick Skondreas on Melbourne (03) 9615 7381.

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