Each stage of a criminal trial is governed by rules, sometimes quite complex ones. The rules are easier to understand if we have a broad picture in our minds of what usually happens in criminal trials from the time that the accused person pleads to the charge until he is either acquitted or found guilty and sentenced. So what follows is an outline of what happens in most trials in the High Court and in magistrates courts. The rules governing each stage of a trial, and what can happen at each of those stages, will be dealt with in more detail later in these notes.
Before an accused person is called on to plead in a magistrates court, the magistrate must inform him of his right to be represented by a lawyer ‒ this does not apply, of course, if the accused is legally represented.
This is the stage when the accused person is called on to plead to the charge, which is set out in an indictment (in the High Court) or in a summons or charge sheet (in a magistrates court). Although the accused can put forward special pleas such as challenging the jurisdiction of the court or that he has already been tried for the crime, he will normally plead either guilty or not guilty.
If the accused person pleads guilty to the charge, he is admitting that he committed the crime to which he is pleading guilty. He may plead guilty to all charges, or to some of them, or to a lesser crime. If he pleads guilty to a lesser crime the court will record a plea of not guilty unless the prosecutor indicates that he or she accepts the plea to the lesser crime.
The High Court can convict an accused person who has pleaded guilty without hearing any evidence, though in practice if the accused pleads guilty to murder the court will record a plea of not guilty and require the prosecution to lead evidence.
If an accused person pleads guilty in a magistrates court the court can convict him without hearing evidence if he is charged with a petty crime (i.e. one where a fine of level 3 or less is imposed). If however the crime is more serious the court can convict an accused person without hearing evidence only if the court is satisfied that he fully understands the charge and the essential elements of the crime, and that by pleading guilty he is admitting all those elements and the acts and omissions set out in the charge. Once the court is satisfied on that score, it can convict him without any evidence and can impose any appropriate sentence on him.
By pleading not guilty the accused person is challenging the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she committed the crime charged. So when an accused person pleads not guilty, there needs to be a trial to determine his guilt.
In the High Court both parties ‒ prosecution and defence ‒ have provided the court and each other with outlines of their respective cases before the trial begins. When an accused person is committed for trial in the High Court, he must be given a written outline of the State case summarising the evidence which each State witness is expected to give. And before the trial is held, his legal practitioner must provide the prosecution with an outline of his defence, summarising the evidence which each defence witness is expected to give. If he fails to do so, the court may draw adverse inferences from the failure ‒ that is, the court may infer that his failure to provide the outline indicates he has something to hide.
So before the trial starts each party knows the case the other party will try to establish. Nonetheless, before leading any evidence the prosecutor will usually give the court a brief explanation of what the case is about.
After an accused person has pleaded not guilty in a magistrates court, the prosecutor must provide a written outline of the nature of the State case and the material facts he or she will rely on. The accused person is then asked to give an outline of his defence and the material facts on which he will rely. If he fails to do so, the court may draw adverse inferences from the failure.
After the accused has pleaded not guilty and ‒ in a magistrates court ‒ the prosecutor and the accused have outlined their cases, the prosecutor must lead the State’s evidence. This is done by getting the State witnesses to come to the witness stand, one by one, and be sworn and give their evidence orally. The prosecutor guides them through their evidence by asking them questions, though the questions must not be “leading”. When the prosecutor has guided a witness through his or her evidence, the accused or his legal practitioner is allowed to cross-examine the witness ‒ that is, ask the witness questions in order to discredit the witness’s evidence or to bring out points in favour of the defence. After the witness has been cross-examined the prosecutor is allowed to re-examine the witness in order to deal with points arising from the cross-examination.
If the prosecutor wants to produce evidence of an extra-curial statement made by the accused, he can simply hand in the statement if it has been confirmed by a magistrate. If it has not been confirmed, then the court must embark on a “trial within a trial”, i.e. an enquiry to determine the circumstances in which the accused made the statement. Only if the prosecution proves that the accused made it freely and voluntarily will it be admitted in evidence.
When all the State witnesses have given evidence the prosecutor must close the State case.
When the State has closed its case the judge or magistrate must decide whether the State’s evidence is sufficiently convincing to establish a prima facie case, i.e. a case that requires a response from the accused. If it is not, the judicial officer must discharge the accused by finding him not guilty. If there is a prima facie case against the accused, however, it is the turn of the accused or his legal practitioner to present the defence case.
The judicial officer must tell the accused, if he is not legally represented, that if he is going to give evidence he must do so before any of his witnesses give theirs. The accused must also be told that even if he does not give evidence he may be questioned by the prosecutor and the court.
Before leading any evidence the accused or his legal practitioner may address the court, outlining the evidence he is going to lead.
The accused (if he gives evidence) and his witnesses come to the witness stand one by one to give their evidence orally. They are all liable to be cross-examined by the prosecutor and, when they have been cross-examined, to be re-examined by the accused or his legal practitioner.
When all the accused’s witnesses have given evidence, the defence case is closed.
After the defence case is closed, the judicial officer can reach a verdict. Before doing so, however, the prosecutor must be given an opportunity to address the court, summing up the case against the accused, and then the accused or his legal practitioner must be allowed to address the court. Having heard both parties the judge or magistrate can then deliver judgment and verdict, i.e. the decision on whether the accused is found guilty or not guilty.
If the accused is found not guilty he is discharged and released from custody. If however he is found guilty, the judge or magistrate has to consider what sentence to impose.
Before imposing sentence the judicial officer must give both parties an opportunity to address the court and lead evidence in regard to an appropriate sentence. The prosecutor normally starts, and can lead evidence as to the accused person’s previous convictions and deal with any other factor that relates to sentence. The accused or his legal practitioner must also be allowed to address and lead evidence in mitigation of sentence.
Having done that, the judicial officer is in a position to impose whatever sentence is appropriate and lawful.