How criminal cases begin: Pleading, bail and name suppression
Entering your plea: guilty or not guilty
What happens when you first appear in court?
Your name will be called, and you will have to stand up in the dock, unless the charge cannot result in imprisonment (for example, careless driving). If you do not have a lawyer to represent you, the charge against you will be read out and you will be asked whether you plead guilty or not guilty. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will usually tell the court what your plea is.
What type of plea can I make?
You can plead guilty or not guilty. If you are not ready to plead, you will be remanded without plea. This means that your case will be put off to a date in either two or three weeks so that you can get legal advice and decide what your plea will be.
Note: If you have been charged with more than one offence, you can plead guilty or not guilty to each of the separate charges against you.
What happens if I plead guilty?
If you plead guilty, this means that you admit committing the offence you have been charged with. The court will then decide what punishment (sentence) you will be given (see “Sentencing” in this chapter).
Depending on the seriousness of the charges, the court may sentence you straight away, or order a “stand-down report” for sentencing later that day, or order a full pre-sentence report before sentencing you on a later day. These reports are prepared by probation officers.
In some cases, a restorative justice conference may also be suitable (see “Alternatives to going to court: Diversion and restorative justice / Restorative justice conferences” in this chapter).
Note: If you admit committing the offence and it is a minor offence, you may be eligible for diversion (see “Alternatives to going to court: Diversion and restorative justice / Diversion” in this chapter).
Can I change my plea from guilty to not guilty?
You can apply to change your plea from guilty to not guilty at any time up until you are sentenced. However, there will need to be exceptional circumstances before the court will approve the application.
What happens if I plead not guilty?
If you plead not guilty, it means you are saying you did not commit the offence you have been charged with and the prosecution must prove otherwise.
Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 73
If the charge is a Category 3 offence (that is, punishable by a prison term of two years or more), you have a right to choose to be tried by a jury. You should make this choice at the time you plead not guilty, otherwise you will be tried by a judge sitting without a jury.
Note: If you change your mind later on and decide you want to be tried by a jury, it is extremely difficult to change your original choice. The best thing is to get legal advice early and make a fully informed choice at the beginning.
When you have pleaded not guilty, a date will be set for a case review (see “Pre-trial processes” in this chapter). If agreement about resolving the case isn't reached at the case review, a date for a judge-alone trial or jury trial will be set.
Does my plea affect whether I will be released or kept in custody?
Not necessarily. If the offence is minor and you plead guilty, you may be sentenced to a penalty other than imprisonment (see “Sentencing” in this chapter) and released on the same day. In other cases, the decision about whether you will be released or kept in custody is based on factors such as the likelihood that you will turn up for your next court appearance and the seriousness of the offence (see “Bail” in this chapter). With more serious offences, once you plead guilty the rules change about whether you are released, and it can become much harder for you to be released.