Last updated 29 August 2016
Committal proceedings are conducted in the Magistrates Court in respect of indictable offences under s 104 of the Justices Act 1886 (Qld) (Justices Act).
Section 114 of the Justices Act also provides for a process known as Registry Committal, where a court registrar can commit a defendant to trial or sentence where the defendant is legally represented and those legal representatives consent to that process.
In other respects, the benefits of a committal hearing for a defendant generally remain:
- The defendant is not placed on trial unless there is sufficient prima facie evidence such that a properly instructed jury could find the person guilty of the charge(s).
- The defendant and a court are provided with the opportunity to know the full nature of the evidence held by the prosecution to support a charge. There has been a codification and strengthening of the obligation of the prosecution to provide full and open disclosure of material evidence that the prosecution will use to support the charge. Provisions have been introduced to provide for that process to be managed by the Magistrates Court, including the provision of cost orders in limited cases where disclosure has not been made.
- The defendant can make a considered decision as to the appropriate plea to be entered.
- It is determined if a request should be made to the prosecution to cross-examine Crown witnesses on specific issues. If this is not consented to, an application to a magistrate for an order to do so can be made. Such an order will only be made if the magistrate is satisfied that there are substantial reasons why, in the interests of justice, the witness should be called to give oral evidence.
- The defendant can assess what evidence in reply should be collated for trial.
- Submissions can be more sensibly prepared as to the evidentiary issues at trial.
- The trial listing process will be better informed, particularly as to the likely duration and the issue(s) in contest at the trial.
- The basis for sentence will be determined if the defendant pleads guilty, so that a sentencing judge can be fully appraised of the nature of the case by reading the depositions from the committal. A contested sentence can also be prepared for if necessary.
- The Director of Public Prosecutions is permitted to more fully assess the prosecution case and determine whether the matter is, in fact, a proper one to bring to trial, notwithstanding that there may be a prima facie case. Also, matters relevant to public policy considerations can be considered.
Written statements are tendered of all witnesses. Statements may be tendered without the need for witnesses to provide full evidence, if the court is satisfied the defendant understands what the proceedings are about and knows their right to obtain legal representation or legal assistance, and that they have the right to apply to cross-examine witnesses.
Unless the case is conceded (and then only if the defendant is represented), the magistrate must determine sufficiency of the evidence for trial. Again this is a question of law, whether or not a jury, properly instructed as to the law, could convict the defendant.
There is a very long line of authority to support the proposition that indeed in determining whether the prosecution has adduced sufficient evidence to put a defendant on trial, a committing magistrate should have regard to the reliability of the evidence, not for the purpose of determining whether they personally are persuaded of guilt but for the purpose of determining whether any reasonable jury properly instructed could return a verdict of guilty upon it.
If a magistrate decides there is a case to answer, the defendant has the opportunity to give evidence and call witnesses. It is extremely rare for such evidence to be given or called at a committal hearing as the test for committal is not a high one, and it is not usually wise to disclose the defence case before the jury until the trial. If the defence calls evidence, the court will again consider whether there is a case to answer. If it decides that there is, the magistrate will commit the defendant for trial.
Once a defendant is formally committed for trial, they will then be called upon to either plead guilty, not guilty or to enter no plea. The defendant can either be kept in custody until the trial or be admitted to bail. A fresh bail application must be made to the magistrate after the formal committal for trial for a defendant to be released pending proceedings in a superior court.