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Communtity Law Manual | Criminal Courts | Overview of how the criminal courts work

Overview of how the criminal courts work

Information for defendants, witnesses and victims

Note: The chapter “Common crimes” has information about some specific types of minor criminal offences – including shoplifting, tagging/graffiti, minor assaults, drug offences, and pāua poaching and other fisheries offences. “Common crimes” explains what the prosecution has to prove to get a conviction in these cases, what defences you might have to the charge, and what a typical sentence might be, particularly if you’re a first-time offender. For information about the Youth Justice system, go to

There are four categories of criminal offences (as explained below), with Category 1 offences being the least serious and Category 4 the most serious. The category of the offence that you’re charged with determines what the process will be, and which court will deal with your case.

Most cases are heard in the District Court but more serious offences are heard in the High Court.

If you plead not guilty there will be a trial. Your trial will either be heard by a jury or by a judge alone. 12 members of the public decide whether you are guilty or not, and the judge then decides what your sentence will be. Whether you can have a jury trial depends on how serious your case is. You’ll have the right to choose a jury trial if the offence you’re charged with carries a maximum penalty of two or more years in prison – in other words if it’s a category 3 or 4 case.

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.

To find out more about these different schemes, read the chapter “Legal Aid and other legal help”.

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