Overview of how the criminal courts work
The four offence categories for different levels of seriousness
Category 1 offences: Fines or community-based sentences only
These are offences where you can only be fined, or sentenced to a community-based sentence like community work or supervision, rather than imprisonment. Your case will be seen at the District Court, and usually by a Justice of the Peace or a Community Magistrate rather than a judge.
An example of a Category 1 offence is careless driving (that doesn’t cause injury or death).
Category 2 offences: Less than two years’ imprisonment
These are offences with a maximum penalty of less than two years in prison. If you plead not guilty, your trial will be in front of a judge sitting without a jury. Usually this will be in the District Court.
There are offences in Category 2 where a company or other corporate body (not a person) can be punished by a fine but where the punishment for a person committing that same offence would be up to two years’ imprisonment.
Category 2 offences include common assault or a first or second drink driving conviction.
Category 3 offences: Two or more years’ imprisonment
These are offences with a maximum penalty of a prison term of two years or more (but excluding Category 4 offences). Usually these are heard by the District Court. You have the option of either being tried by a judge alone or having a jury trial.
Category 3 offences could include aggravated assault, threatening to kill, dangerous driving or a third (or more) drink driving conviction.
Note: Usually if you’re charged with a Category 3 offence you have to choose whether or not to have a jury trial at the time that you plead not guilty, which will usually be within three weeks after being charged. So it’s very important that you get good legal advice very early on.
Category 4 offences: Very serious crimes
These are the most serious offences, including murder, manslaughter, torture and terrorism offences. They’re dealt with in the High Court. Usually there’ll be a jury trial, but a judge-alone trial can be ordered in some cases.
The Category 4 offences are set out in Schedule 1 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011.