This guide has basic information for people who have been required to come before the court for either a criminal charge or civil matter, for example, contractual disputes, neighbourhood disputes, damage to another person’s property.
Going to court
The Judge sits on the bench at the front of the courtroom, and lawyers sit facing them at a table called the bar table.
Members of the public and family can sit in the chairs behind the lawyers. Anyone can sit in the courtroom and listen to the evidence.
In some cases, the Judge may ask people to leave the courtroom and stop some evidence from being published in the media. This is called a closed court.
When inside the court you should do all of the following:
- bow when entering and leaving a courtroom
- enter and leave the courtroom quietly
- not talk, eat or chew gum
- turn off your mobile phone
- remove your sunglasses and/or hat.
Find out more information about courtroom rules.
Different sorts of appearances
Common criminal court appearances are:
This is where the lawyers and Judge speak briefly about your case and to organise what is to happen next in your matter.
If a person is in prison waiting for their matter to be decided by a court they can ask for bail. The lawyer for the person (or the person themselves) can ask the judge to release them from prison under certain rules which may include conditions which could include:
- a curfew
- reporting to your local police station on a regular basis
- taking part in a program
- electronic monitoring
However, the Judge may not agree to a bail application and you may have to stay in custody until your next court date.
If you are contesting a criminal charge and want it set down for a hearing then your matter will be given a directions hearing date about 4 weeks from your first appearance.
At that directions hearing there will be a discussion about what will need to be decided by the Court at the hearing. Once all of those things are worked out your matter will be given a hearing date.
At any time up to 7 days before the date set for a hearing you (the defendant) can ask the Judge for a sentence indication. This means the Judge looks at the charge, the facts as alleged by the prosecution, any victim impact statement and any material you or your lawyer wants the Court to consider and then tells you what sentence the udge will give to you if you plead guilty.
If you accept that indication of sentence you will plead guilty before that same Judge and that is the sentence you will get unless there has been a change in circumstances which the Judge thinks will change the severity of the sentence.
If you do not like what that Judge has indicated as your sentence you cannot refuse that sentence and then ask another Judge for an indication.
If you want to dispute your criminal charge, you will need a hearing. Witnesses come to court and answer questions about the incident, and any evidence is given to the Judge.
The time it takes for a hearing will depend on how many witnesses are called and whether there are a lot of legal issues. A hearing can take from 1 hour to 1 week.
The Judge will then decide at the end of the hearing whether you are guilty or not.
If you are found guilty by the Judge, you will then be sentenced.
Find out more about court orders and sentencing.
The Local Court only has the power to hear and decide certain charges the more serious charges must go to the Supreme Court but before that the Local Court must look at the evidence and decide if there is enough evidence for a jury to potentially find the defendant guilty of the charges.
That is called the Preliminary Examination process, where there are preliminary examination mentions (also known as PEM) and applications (PEA)
Sometimes your lawyer and the prosecutor agree there is enough evidence to send your matter to the Supreme Court without your lawyer asking any questions of the witnesses and they will ask the Judge to refer the matter to the Supreme Court on the papers. This is called a preliminary examination on the papers (also known as a PEP).
Sometimes the lawyer for the defendant will apply to the Judge for the right to ask questions of some of the witnesses in the preliminary examination hearing and if the Judge approves that application the matter will be given another date when those witnesses will attend court and be asked questions. This is called a preliminary examination oral (PEO). At the end of that process the Judge will then decide if there is enough evidence to refer the matter to the Supreme Court, this referral is also known as 'committal'.
This is when you have agreed to plead guilty to an offence. The charges will be read out and you will be asked 'to that charge, do you plead guilty or not guilty', the Judge will then wait for your answer aloud.
The Judge will then hear what you have done and consider if the charge is proven. The prosecution and defence have the opportunity to provide the Judge with sentencing material and submissions so the Judge may provide an appropriate sentence. The prosecution may hand up as their sentencing material your criminal history in the NT as well as other States and/or a Victim impact statement (if one exists). Your lawyer (or yourself if you are representing yourself) may hand up character references, apology letters or financial circumstances as the sentencing material if relevant.
You will then be given a sentence by the Judge.
Common civil court appearances are:
The first time you will come before the court in a civil matter is a conciliation conference. That conference is held in a conference room and will be presided over by a Judicial Registrar. The Judicial Registrar is a senior lawyer who has some judicial powers as well as mediation experience. At that conference you will be expected to discuss the issues with the other person and try to come to an agreement on how to resolve your differences. If you cannot resolve your differences then the Judicial Registrar will make some orders to make sure you matter is ready to be given a hearing date.
Before your court case is given a hearing date you will be given another time to appear before the Judicial Registrar at a prehearing conference. At that conference you will again be expected to discuss the issues and try and resolve your matter and also to ensure everything has been done to ensure the smooth running of the hearing.
Sometimes it may be necessary to bring your matter on before the Judge or Judicial Registrar before the hearing, for example, there has been a problem with getting relevant documents from the other person. This is called an interlocutory application and you can make such an application by using a Form 25A and you will have to support that application with an affidavit setting out what facts you rely on to get the order you want.
This the day when you and all of your witnesses must come to court and give evidence. Your evidence can be challenged by the other person or his lawyer by asking each witness questions and the Judge also ask questions. If you have other people willing to give evidence to support your side of the story you should make sure they are at court for the hearing. The other person and their witnesses will have the opportunity to give evidence as well and you or your lawyer will be able to question them.
The Plaintiff (the person who started the proceeding) and their witnesses give evidence first and then the Defendant (the person responding to the claim of the Plaintiff) and their witnesses give evidence after all of the Plaintiff’s evidence is given.
You must make sure to have all of the relevant documents at court especially those that you want the Court to view.
After all the evidence is given then the Judge will ask for submissions. Which is just a way of asking you to summarise why you think the Judge should decide the case in your favour.
After submissions the Judge will either give you the decision straight away or tell you they want to think about it for a while and give you another date and time when you have to come back for the Judge’s decision.
Court orders and sentencing
A court order is anything that a court directs you to do. The following are some particular terms for court orders explained:
Order for discovery is an order that requires you to give a copy of all of your documents relevant to your dispute to the person with whom you are having the dispute.
Judgment is the decision of a court on a civil dispute, for example, an order that one person owes another person some money or has to fix up a defect in their work.
Warrant of Possession is an order of the Court that one person give possession of a property to another person.
Warrant of Seizure and Sale is an order allowing one person to seize and sell the goods of another to get the money they are owed.
Attachment of Earnings order is an order of the Court directing your employer to pay off your judgment debt.
Summons for Oral Examination; when you have a judgment against you for an amount of money to be paid the Court can order you to come to court and answer questions about your financial circumstances to work out how you can pay the money you owe the judgment creditor.
The most significant order a court can make against you in a criminal matter is to find you guilty of an offence or crime and then from that finding of guilt you will be sentenced.
A sentence is the punishment given to you by a judge if the Court finds you guilty.
You can be given either:
- time in prison – known as a custodial sentence
- or a sentence that doesn’t require you to go to prison – known as a non-custodial sentence which includes fines, good behaviour bonds, community work, community based orders.
Find out more information on sentencing options.
Find out more information on going to prison.
The Court can also order a warrant for your arrest if you do not come to court when you are required. If that happens the Police will get notice of that warrant which gives them authority to arrest you and bring you to the court.
What your sentence depends on
Your sentence will depend on many different factors (see section 5 of the Sentencing Act (NT))
Some of the things the Court considers are:
- the seriousness of the crime
- whether you have history of similar crimes
- your personal circumstances including any positive community involvement
- what the victim’s wishes are
- if there is anything that can be done to change your behaviour, for example, alcohol or drug rehabilitation
Young people are treated differently by the courts.
Find out more information on young people in court.