Ordinarily, murder and manslaughter charges go through a committal hearing process in the Magistrates’ Court, before an accused can be committed to stand trial in the Supreme Court.
During the committal process, the prosecution is required to disclose material to the
defence , and there is an opportunity to test some of the evidence through the examination of witnesses with the leave of the court. At the end of the committal hearing , the magistrate makes a decision whether or not to commit the accused to stand trial.
In the current COVID-19 circumstances, and having regard to the volume of matters currently before the Magistrates’ Court, the Supreme Court has agreed to assist by taking on parts of that workload, where the parties wish it to do so. This procedure will also be available in the case of any Children’s Court homicide matters, which ordinarily go through their own committal process.
The procedure will only be available for those cases where the accused agrees to forgo his or her right to a committal hearing. In such cases, the Supreme Court will deal with all of the disclosure and pre-trial witness examination which ordinarily occurs in the Magistrates’ and Children’s Courts.
In general terms, the procedure to be adopted will be as follows:
- The prosecution will deliver a “hand-up brief”.
- Thereafter, the accused will elect to stand trial (under s 143 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009), and plead not guilty before the magistrate. The magistrate will then commit the accused to stand trial in the Supreme Court.
- There will be an initial directions hearing in the Supreme Court within 7 to 10 days after committal. For the time being, those directions hearings will be dealt with “on the papers”, or by videolink.
- Thereafter, the Supreme Court will make appropriate orders for the provision of documents to the defence, and the preliminary examination of witnesses (under s 198B of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009), as and when witnesses are available. The Supreme Court expects to have the capacity to hear s 198B examinations for all available witnesses during the period in which it is unable to hear jury trials.
- The Supreme Court will make its usual pre-trial directions, at an appropriate time.
- Homicide matters may also be referred to a judicial officer for a confidential settlement conference, to see if the matter can be resolved, or the issues narrowed.
- Homicide cases will be given a trial date after all such preliminary matters have been dealt with.
By adopting this procedure, the Supreme Court hopes to:
- Relieve some of the pressures on the Magistrates’ and Children’s Courts;
- Enable homicide matters to resolve, or progress towards a jury trial, at a faster rate than they might otherwise do in the current circumstances; and
- Be able to better manage the listing and throughput of its homicide trials, once jury trials are able to recommence.
However, the procedure is an entirely voluntary one. If any of the parties does not wish to use this procedure, the matter will proceed through the committal stream in the lower courts as and when they are able to accommodate them.