How criminal cases begin: Pleading guilty/not guilty, bail, and name suppression
Your first day at court: Overview
Your first day at court is known as your “first appearance”. Court usually starts at 9am – unless you’ve been arrested that day or week and are waiting in the cells (usually people held in the cells appear around 12-1pm).
If you are pleading guilty, or are at court for sentencing, a case review, or a family violence court matter, court will usually start at 10am. If you’re unsure, you can call the District Court and ask what time you are expected, or check the paper your bail bond or summons, which will state the time you are expected at court.
Someone who has been arrested and charged with an offence by the police must be brought before a court as soon as reasonably possible.
- bail bond – the paper you signed at your last appearance that contains the conditions you must follow until sentencing
- summons – the letter you were sent a few days after the incident.
Can I represent myself in court?
You are entitled to represent yourself in court. However you do need to be confident in your ability to prepare and manage your case through the whole court process. The Ministry of Justice has various brochures to assist you.
Getting help from a lawyer
You can get free or partly free advice and representation from a lawyer if you can’t afford to hire one yourself. Here are the main schemes for this:
- The Police Detention Legal Aid scheme (“PDLA”): for when you’ve just been arrested.
- The duty lawyer: for your first day in court, and other times where you don’t have a lawyer to represent you. You can have a duty lawyer each time you appear, but this will be a different person each time.
- Legal Aid: for ongoing cases.
To find out more about these different schemes, see the chapter “Legal Aid and other legal help“.
How can a duty lawyer help me?
At court, if you do not have a lawyer, you should ask to see a duty lawyer. The duty lawyer is a free lawyer who will help you (“the defendant”) and will represent you on your first day in court. The duty lawyer will help by getting information from the police about the charge (“disclosure”) and advising you about the seriousness of the charge. The duty lawyer will also advise whether you qualify for Legal Aid or not. If you do qualify they may help you apply for Legal Aid.
The duty lawyer can also help you by putting the case off to another date (“remanding” the case to another date). That date will be in either two or three weeks. A remand means that you have not entered a plea to the charge yet.
On that next date you will be required to enter a plea to the charge. If you don’t, a plea of not guilty will usually be entered for you by the court.
If you are pleading guilty, and it is a less serious offence that the duty lawyer is comfortable dealing with on the day, the matter will be dealt with by the judge on the same day (usually this starts at 10 am).
See ‘Entering your plea: guilty or not guilty’ for information on how pleading works.
How can a registrar help me when my case is remanded?
A registrar (rather than a judge) can organise your remand (when you don’t plead guilty) if both you and the police agree on the terms of the remand.
Some courts operate a registrar’s court. Other courts simply have a registrar’s kiosk. In areas where there is only a kiosk, you won’t have to enter a courtroom on your first appearance.
Who will be in the courtroom? Where do I stand?
The judge sits at the front of the court on a raised bench – you call the judge “Your Honour”. Directly below the judge is the registrar. The registrar is a court employee who handles the paperwork, calls out the cases and generally assists the judge.
Lawyers sit at the front section of the court with the police or crown prosecutor in the very front bench and the public sit at the back in the public gallery. There will be specialist agencies like probation officers, Restorative Justice co-ordinators or alcohol and drug co-ordinators. These roles should have a label on their desk or on the back of their chair.
The dock (where the defendant stands) is on one side of the courtroom, and there will be a police or prison officer beside it. If you are in custody you will be held in the cells and brought up to court by a police officer.
There may also be reporters in court and during trials witnesses give their evidence from the witness box. Court is open to the public except in certain very limited circumstances.
What time does court run?
Court starts at 10am, with a morning break from 11.30am to 11.45am. There is a lunch break from 1pm to 2.15pm, and then court will continue till 5pm (with a short afternoon break from 3.30pm -3.45pm).
Often cases are seen in a ‘first come first serve’ manner. After you have talked with the duty lawyer or your assigned lawyer, they will let the registrar know you are ready. You have to wait until you hear your name called out.
Note: Often people waiting in the foyer are called first, those in custody appearing by audio-visual link (AVL) are called around 11:45am and people who have been recently arrested or are in custody but appearing in person are called later in the day.