In 1788, when the first white settlers landed in Australia, any evidence of a just legal system was essentially non existent. Military power, and dictatorship enforced by the Governor, was essentially the "rule of law", with any criminal activity from the people punished accordingly by the Governor or his agents. Much has changed since those colonial times. Today, Australia enforces a criminal law system governed by a number of individually recognized institutions of law, the effectiveness of which is to be explored in this report.
Aims of a good criminal legal system The ultimate aim of a criminal law system is to successfully reduce and prevent crimes from ever occurring. However, when a crime is committed, that aim then changes to apprehending the criminal, and punishing him accordingly within the acceptable boundaries of society. A good criminal law system will also provide education, support, and advice for the general public. Role of courts in the criminal law system
The courts play an essential role in the Australian criminal law system – they are seen by many as being the foremost administrators of legal justice. The courts have the power to issue warrants for arrest, convict and sentence offenders, as well as indirectly acting as a deterrent for future offenders. Courts also provide support and advice for the general populace, in the form of legal aid, brochures and counselors. Local Courts in New South Wales Paramatta Local Courts and Hornsby Local Courts were observed for the purposes of this report.
The initial impression that the Hornsby Local Courts gives is that it is an extremely busy court. This is first apparent before any actual hearing of cases occurs, during the time which the Registrar Court operates to organize times and dates for future hearings. To the uninitiated, this process of organizing hearing dates may seem to be chaotic at times; lawyers are constantly moving in and out of the courtroom, court officials seem stressed doing several tasks at once, and the Magistrate speaks with seemingly amazing speed.
There was a real sense of urgency to get through as many mentions as possible. Legal jargon seems to be entrenched in this process, certainly, the general public would have a difficult time absorbing what was being said by both the Magistrate and the lawyers. Thankfully, the Registrar Court is a process that defendants stay out of, leaving instead the job to the multitude of lawyers and prosecutors of our legal system. The system was much easier to understand once actual cases were being heard in the court.
The police were responsible for prosecuting, proving two police prosecutors for the day. The majority of criminal offences tried were traffic offences, ranging from the common "drink driving" charge to the more absurd "Stop on/near pedestrian crossing" charge. Most, if not all defendants present for traffic offences were unrepresented by a lawyer, most likely because of the costs involved hiring a lawyer. Legal Aid was not provided for these trivial matters.
It was interesting to note how the court went about sentencing repeating traffic offenders who pleaded guilty to their crimes – the court would order the defendants to undergo a "Traffic Offender's Program", which if they satisfactorily completed, would significantly lower their sentence. This order by the Magistrate is a prime example of legal discretion in the criminal system, where the court takes into account a range of other factors besides legal arguments in sentencing the defendant. An application for bail was also heard, for a defendant who appeared on the charges of "Breaking and Entering, Larceny of goods under $15 000".
The defendant was in police custody, and escorted before the court by two police officers through an isolated door in the far corner of the court room. Represented by a private solicitor, an application for bail was made and ultimately rejected by the court. Worth noticing was how the application wasn't based on legal facts, but rather more on social, economic, and psychological factors; and how the rejection of the application was based on the defendant's criminal record, which was less than impressive.
Again, this shows the presence of discretion in the criminal legal system, with bias shown towards defendants with a record. The Paramatta Local Courts were a lot different to the Hornsby Local Courts. Upon entering the complex, a security check was enforced, making sure that no weapons of any sort would be taken into the complex. Once inside the complex, however, it was immediately apparent that the Paramatta Local courts were more grandiose and modern than the Hornsby Local Courts.
Whereas the Hornsby Courts looked more like an 1800's cottage house, with eloquent furniture and a general 'cosy' feeling, the Paramatta Courts had 'modernized' colour schemes and sharp 'cutting edge' furniture, proving a rather serious mood to the legal process. Defendants here were quite solemn and grim, as opposed to the defendants at Hornsby, who were in a considerably 'lighter' mood. Cases seen at the Paramatta Local Courts were much of the same nature as those seen at the Hornsby Local Courts, that is, traffic offences, assaults, and some drug offences.
However, one notable case seen at the Paramatta Local Courts was where the defendant had pleaded guilty to a minor theft charge, and was awaiting sentencing by the court. Earlier, the defendant had pawned in his new wife's wedding ring, in order to obtain enough money to apply for a bond of some sort. The Magistrate, in yet another display of judicial discretion, and perhaps out of sympathy, placed the defendant on a good behavior bond, and ordered a refund of the money used for the bond application, so that the defendant could obtain back his wife's jewelry.
It was a heartwarming moment, and once again showed that a host of factors besides legal issues are considered in a Magistrate's judgment. The local courts are the foundation of our Criminal Law System in Australia, handling the vast bulk of all criminal cases. As such, the local courts are often extremely busy, which was quite evident at both the Hornsby and Paramatta Local courts. While there wasn't really a sense of urgency at the local courts, at times the court seemed to be cycling through cases rather quickly, with some matters taking only 10 minutes or less.
The local courts also provided much information on the law, through the means of brochures and pamphlets, as well as counselors and advisors. Often, when the defendant looked lost in the legal process, the Magistrate would ask the defendants without representation if they wanted to see a counselor to be advised on their situation. As such, the local courts seems to be more 'integrated' into society than the higher courts, making sure the defendants have a smooth trip through our legal system.