Last updated 29 August 2016
A person charged with any type of offence, no matter how serious or trivial, appears for the first time before the Magistrates Court in the area where the offence is said to have been committed. Magistrates courts operate in Brisbane at major suburban locations, in all other Queensland cities and in some country towns. The court location and number is set out on the notice, summons or bail undertaking.
A defendant should preferably seek legal advice or representation before any court appearance.
Details of law firms that specialise in criminal matters can be obtained from the Queensland Law Society. If a defendant does not believe they can afford to pay for legal representation, Legal Aid Queensland or the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Service can be contacted to assess eligibility for government-funded legal representation. It should be noted, however, that assistance through Legal Aid Queensland is generally not available for summary proceedings in a Magistrates Court, other than in certain circumstances (e.g. if there is a risk of a jail term being imposed perhaps due to a person’s previous convictions).
Proceedings in the Supreme and District courts are generally covered, subject to means-tested eligibility (for further information, see the Self-representation chapter).
In Brisbane and many major regional and suburban centres, a duty lawyer is available to provide free legal advice and representation to defendants on first appearance. Defendants who have not had the opportunity to speak to a lawyer before the court appearance should get to court well in advance of the listed time to discuss the matter with the duty lawyer.
Legal representation is not compulsory. However, it is wise to obtain at least preliminary legal advice and if possible representation, particularly if the possible outcomes of the proceeding include the imposition of a term of imprisonment or a conviction being recorded, which might affect the defendant’s future livelihood.
Layout of the court
The magistrate sits behind a large desk (the bench), which is usually on a raised platform at the front of the court. The magistrate is addressed as ‘Your Honour’.
In front of the magistrate’s bench is a long table (the bar table), at which the defence and prosecution are seated. Any person conducting the defence sits on the left and the prosecutor sits on the right (facing the magistrate). A uniformed police prosecutor usually conducts the prosecution for the first appearance, although there may also be representatives from the state or Commonwealth Directors of Public Prosecution or from other government agencies who may be prosecuting charges. Any person being spoken to by or speaking to the magistrate should stand at that point.
A defendant who has appeared in answer to a summons or notice to appear, or who has been granted bail (either by police or on a previous appearance before a court) sits at the left of the bar table, either alone or with a legal representative. Defendants who are in police custody remain in the dock. The dock is usually a panelled enclosure found along one of the courtroom walls. The witness box is often situated toward the centre of one of the courtroom walls. Proceedings are recorded using tape or digital recorders, which are operated by a clerk who sits directly in front of or to the side of the magistrate.
It is advisable to be respectful whilst in court by taking off any hat or sunglasses and turning mobile phones off. Eating or chewing gum is likewise not recommended. Sensible and non-provocative clothing should be worn.
Procedure before the court
At the first court appearance, the defendant will be informed of the charge and asked whether they accept the charge or wish to contest it. The police prosecutor will usually have a copy of the charge sheet, a police summary of the conduct alleged against the defendant (this document is called a QP9) and a copy of the defendant’s criminal or traffic history, if there is one. These documents should be obtained from the police prosecutor and read before the defendant’s name is called for the matter to proceed.