The Court Process
Updated August 2019
There are three levels of courts in Queensland:
The Magistrates Court handles the start of all criminal matters, and smaller civil matters
The District Court hears more serious criminal offences (rape, significant fraud etc) are handled here, along with civil matters relating to higher amounts of money.
The Supreme Court hears serious cases involving lots of money, serious crimes such as murder, often with a jury, and also hears appeal cases from lower courts.
Can I get a lawyer?
You are entitled to represent yourself at court or engage a lawyer who will represent you. Regardless of how you plan to be represented, it’s always a good idea to get legal advice, especially if you're charged with anything that doesn’t seem to fit, or you believe the police treated you inappropriately. You should also read your charge sheet in detail and ensure you believe all the details the police provide seem accurate and fair.
It can be difficult for activists to get lawyers for representation in court, however, increasingly lawyers are reaching out to express their willingness to help out. If you’re a lawyer keen to help, get in touch with us here.
Community Legal Centres and services like Legal Aid are chronically underfunded, and usually are unable to represent in minor criminal matters. They are also subject to a means test so if you are in full time work you may not be eligible. If you’ve got a criminal record, or special circumstances you might be able to get representation through these services. Another option is seeking representation through a private lawyer, either paid, or pro bono (free).
Note: you cannot seek legal advice before you plan to be arrested. A lawyer can only give you legal advice once you have been charged with an offence.
Many general practice and criminal lawyers from the private sector will be able to assist you. They will charge fees that may vary considerably. Make sure you discuss fees at the outset – either on the phone or at the first interview – so that you know what fees to expect. If you decide to engage a lawyer for the entirety of your case make sure you clarify how much you will need to pay and when. They must do this as part of their duties to the profession and to you.
In some circumstances, solicitors or barristers may be prepared to act for you or your group on a ‘pro bono’ or reduced fee basis. You can check the Queensland Law Society’s referral website or call 1300 367 757 to find a qualified lawyer in your area.
Note that there will still be fees related to your case, including the offender’s levy and any costs for obtaining court transcripts or other related costs. Clarify with your lawyer what costs to expect.
Community legal centres (CLCS)
Community legal centres are non-government, not-for-profit organisations that exist to provide legal assistance to disadvantaged people and make law more accessible to everyone. Many provide free, one-off legal advice. Some will take on your case depending on your circumstance and their intake criteria. For a list of community legal centres near you visit http://www.naclc.org.au/ or call Legal Aid Queensland’s info line and ask for a referral to a CLC near you.
Note: sometimes you will need to pay a small contribution to the cost of your advice or representation through a CLC.
Legal Aid Queensland
Legal Aid is a government organisation that assists people in some criminal matters. Eligibility for Legal Aid Queensland is strict and only available where your income is below a certain amount. While most people are able to get a free phone or face to face advice session, LAQ can only represent you if you’ve been charged with a very serious offence, have a criminal record, or in other particular circumstances.
Even if you haven’t brought a lawyer on to your case, you can often get representation on the day.
At most courts in Queensland there’s a criminal lawyer who’s able to help you by giving advice or representing you on the day of your hearing. If you plan to plead guilty, seek an adjournment (see more info about this below), apply for bail, or change your bail conditions, the duty lawyer can usually help.
The duty lawyer can only help you on the day you have to go to court. They can’t help you with a case that isn’t listed in the court on that day—for example, if your court date is on Wednesday, you can’t get help from the duty lawyer before that day.
Find out more information about duty lawyers here. At the bottom of that website you can check out the Duty Lawyer service status which should tell you whether there will be a duty lawyer at your court on your court date.
When to get a lawyer
There are some instances where it might be more beneficial than others to attempt to find a lawyer to represent you in court. Some examples:
You’ve been charged with something that you weren’t expecting, or that doesn’t seem to fit the action you took. Eg you received an assault charge and you don’t understand why.
The police are seeking large amounts of compensation or restitution from you on behalf of the private company you were targeting.
You feel you were seriously mistreated by the police.
You are given legal advice by a CLC or Legal Aid and the lawyer tells you you need to try and find a lawyer.
QP9: Obtain a copy of this document before seeking legal advice
A QP9 is basically the version of events the police are alleging happened. The document is prepared by the arresting officer. Police Prosecutions can be contacted to get a copy of the QP9 and criminal or traffic history before a court date, however the QP9 is usually collected at the first mention of the matter in court. If one is not available at your first court mention, you should speak with the duty lawyer.
To get legal advice from Legal Aid and most CLCs, you first need to obtain your QP9. What this means is either calling Police Prosecutions (find the relevant court and phone number here) and requesting it for collection at least 1-2 weeks out from your first date. The more common option is to go to your first court date, collect your QP9 and request the matter be adjourned so that you can seek legal advice. See more info about this below.
How to prepare for an advice session with a lawyer
If you have a free advice session with a lawyer, it’s important you’re prepared and maximise the benefit you can get in the short time you’ll have.
Ensure you have all the documentation you need to get proper advice. This usually means having your QP9, but if you aren’t sure, call and ask.
Before attending, clarify whether you will be required to pay any costs. Sometimes you may be required to cover some of the costs of proceedings even where a lawyer is providing their time pro bono.
Ensure you have read your charge sheet, and understand what the police are alleging happened. Be ready to explain to the lawyer how your version might differ.
If you’re self-representing, it can be helpful to take lots of notes for yourself during the advice session so you don’t forget anything important.
Come ready - bring any questions you have. You could write them all down beforehand if you want to ensure you get a chance to ask them.
If you need assistance because you don’t speak English to a level that you’d be confident speaking and hearing it in court, make sure to request an interpreter be present at your court hearing. Local courts have a booking service and in criminal matters this service is usually free. Ask the court registry about finding an interpreter.
Many activists represent themselves in court, especially if they plan to plead guilty. It might seem a bit overwhelming, so it can be useful to prepare and familiarise yourself with the court process. You should also note that even if you’re self-representing, you can probably get one-off legal advice. See above for how best to prepare for an advice session.
Visit our referrals page to work out who to call.
Preparing your case
If you want to ensure the best outcome possible from court, it is likely you will have to attend on more than one occasion. Usually you will need to go to court on the first summons date, to seek an adjournment (postponing your case until a future date) and get your QP9, then seek legal advice before your second date. If you plan to plead guilty, you can usually have your matter sentenced and finalised on the second court date. However, if there are issues with your charges, you alleged there was a mistake or error in the police’s version of events, or if you plan to plead not-guilty, it can take longer.
This page summarises a few key pieces of information about self-representing, but there’s a lot of information online if you need an answer to a specific question. Legal Aid Queensland has prepared a useful guide to steps that you should undertake in order to be prepared for court. The guide can be found here.
You can also phone the Legal Aid Queensland Information Line: 1300 65 11 88
As mentioned, most criminal matters are adjourned on the first court date. This means that you won’t be processed that day, and will get another court date (usually in a couple of weeks). This gives you a chance to get a copy of your QP9 and seek legal advice. Adjourning your matter is completely standard practice, and you shouldn’t worry that you’ll be penalised for delaying the process. Sometimes a lawyer will seek three or more adjournments to properly prepare a defence. If you are self-representing and have sought legal advice by your second court date, the magistrate might not let you adjourn it again, and could ask you to enter a guilty plea.
If you have any questions about adjourning your matter, entering a plea, or need assistance getting your QP9, you should speak to the Duty Lawyer.
The first appearance date in court is usually called a ‘mention’ date. Sometimes, you can have your matter totally dealt with at the mention by entering a guilty plea. If you don’t have a lawyer, you should always try to see the Duty Lawyer before you make a decision.
When you appear in court you will plead guilty or not guilty.
Most activists plead guilty. Usually they have been arrested following a conscious choice to commit a crime. However, when asked to enter a plea, you do have the choice between pleading guilty, or not guilty. Pleading not guilty means that your matter will be adjourned, and a date for a trial will be set. See more on this below.
If you plead guilty, you agree to be sentenced as if you had committed the offence as described by the prosecutor. Before you plead guilty, it is a good idea to read the QP9 (what the police say happened). If you disagree with any details about your offence you should tell the duty lawyer or the police prosecutor before you enter a plea.
Pleading guilty online
For some minor offences, like public nuisance and contravening police direction, it is usually possible to plead guilty online. Do plead guilty online you should firstly be satisfied that the police’s version of events is correct. Pleading guilty means you accept their version of the facts in full.
If choosing this option, you must submit a guilty plea online more than 2 business days before your court date so it can be processed in time.
You can't plead guilty online if you have received a Notice to Appear for, or been charged with a more serious indictable offence.
When pleading you’ll be asked to write a short statement for the magistrate to consider in their sentencing. This could include things like your reputation in the community, your good record and why you committed the offence. You should get legal advice to help you make your decision about whether to plead guilty online. In that advice, a lawyer should also be able to tell you what kinds of things you could say in your statement.
If you choose to plead not-guilty, that means you’re telling the court you didn’t commit the offences you were charged with, or that you believe you have a valid defence. The prosecutor must then prove you're guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.”
It’s a very good idea to get legal advice before pleading not-guilty.
If you plead not-guilty, the magistrate will then set a date for you to appear at a mention called the summary callover. At the summary callover you can attempt to negotiate with the prosecutor through the duty lawyer (see case conferencing) or you may list your matter for trial.
At the trial, the prosecutor presents will present all the evidence to try to prove their case. Each witness takes their turn to tell the magistrate what they know.
After all the evidence is heard, the magistrate will either acquit you (let you go because there was not enough evidence to prove you were guilty beyond reasonable doubt) or if they think there is enough evidence, they will find you guilty. If acquitted, you're free to go. If the magistrate decides that you're guilty, you'll then be sentenced.
Don’t be late. Always allow plenty of time to get to court early. You may need to line up to see the prosecutor and the Duty Lawyer before court starts. Most courts have staff and volunteers on hand who can direct you towards the Duty Lawyer and the actual courtroom where you need to appear.
Be prepared to be at court all day. The court may list dozens of matters at the same time as your matter. Sometimes you will have to wait for several hours.
Dress nicely. Magistrates and judges expect you to make an effort to be clean and tidy in your appearance. If you want to minimise your sentence/fine, this is an easy way to keep the magistrate happy. Consider borrowing a nice outfit from a friend if you don’t think you have anything suitable.
Do not go to court drunk or on drugs. Make sure you are not carrying any drugs or illegal materials in your possession (including in your pockets).
Attend your court date, no matter what. The above advice should not discourage you from appearing at court; attending is always advisable. If you do not turn up at court, the magistrate can issue a warrant for your arrest to have you brought before the court. If you don’t show up, this may mean your eventual sentence is more severe - even if you have a lawyer acting for you who does appear. If there’s a genuine emergency, contact the court and explain.
What to do if you miss your court date
Attending your court date is incredibly important. Ensure you make a note of the date in your calendar, and set reminders for yourself if you’re worried you’ll forget about it. If you don’t attend, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest. It is important that you get legal help if this happens. Call Legal Aid’s information line: 1300 65 11 88 to find out more about this.