How to cope when you're in trouble

Be Prepared: Court can be an intimidating place, especially if you are in trouble, so it's important to be prepared before your appearance. Photo: Shutterstock.
Be Prepared: Court can be an intimidating place, especially if you are in trouble, so it's important to be prepared before your appearance. Photo: Shutterstock.

If you've been charged with a criminal offence you need to get legal advice as soon as you can. Even if you intend to represent yourself in court, it is advisable to to get legal advice before hand.

Where can I get the advice I need?

  • Law Access NSW: a free government telephone service that provides legal information, referrals, and in some cases advice for people who have a legal problem in NSW. You can call them on 1300 888 529.
  • Legal Aid NSW: provides fee advice to anyone on most matters. Legal representation is available for some matters to people who meet eligibility tests. For more information you should contact your local office for an appointment.
  • Private Lawyers: if you wish to have a private lawyer, you can find one in your area by looking online at the Law Society's website www.lawsociety.com.au. Fees for private lawyers can vary greatly, so make sure you discuss any costs at your first interview.
  • The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS): provides assistance if you are Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander. Your local ALS office can provide more information.

What happens on court day?

Most courts start at 9.30am, so check your papers to see when you need to be there and make sure you are on time. You should get there before court starts and be prepared to wait all day. Before you go into court make sure your turn off your mobile phone and remove any hats or sunglasses you may be wearing, and bow your head towards the magistrate when you enter and leave the court room.

If you have a lawyer, the Magistrate will speak to you through your lawyer. If you do not have a lawyer the Magistrate will ask you a number of questions. When answering, you should address the Magistrate as "Your Honour".

The Magistrate will ask to see if you are ready to deal with your case or need an adjournment for an appropriate reason, for example, to obtain legal advice. You would usually be given one adjournment if you ask for it.

Vital Support: If you've been charged, it's important to get legal advice as soon as possible. Photo: Shutterstock.

Vital Support: If you've been charged, it's important to get legal advice as soon as possible. Photo: Shutterstock.

How do you plead?

The magistrate cannot give you advice about whether or not you should plead guilty, you need to decide this before you go to court. In most cases if you plead not guilty, the Magistrate will order a 'brief of evidence' to be served upon you, or your lawyer and the matter will be adjourned to a future date.

In most cases, if you plead guilty, the Police Facts Sheet will be read by the Magistrate. The Magistrate may also be given other documents, such as witness statements and your criminal record if you have one. You can provide the Magistrate documents, such as a statement by you about your circumstances, why the offence occurred and character references.

You (if you are representing yourself) or your lawyer will then give an explanation about how and why the offence(s) occurred along with some information about yourself, your current financial situation, personal circumstances and general character. It's particularly important to tell the court if you're remorseful and about any rehabilitation you have undertaken such as behavioural courses or compensation. If possible bring a letter from your counsellor or coordinator about your attendance and any medical documents regarding general and mental health.

The Magistrate will then consider the penalty, which range from dismissal without conviction through to conviction with a fine, community correction order, conditional release order, suspended sentence, intensive correction order, home detention or full time gaol. Before you leave the Local Court, find out whether you have to sign any documents that relate to orders relevant to your sentence.

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