What to Expect in Australian Court Proceedings

If you’ve never been to court before, then attending a proceeding can be intimidating. That’s to be expected if you don’t know how, exactly, it works, especially if you’re a new migrant or just visiting. Knowing what to do and expect once you arrive could help ease your nerves and make the day go a lot smoother than anticipated.

What to Wear

It’s important to dress appropriately when going in for your court case. A suit and tie aren’t necessary, but you should aim to keep yourself neat and tidy when going in for your hearing. It could be several hours before you’re seen, so wearing comfortable clothes will make the wait more bearable.

Before the Hearing

Expect airport-style security when entering the courthouse. You and your belongings may be scanned before you’re allowed to enter the courthouse, and any prohibited items, like knives, will be confiscated. Once inside, you’ll need to find the courtroom your hearing will be taking place in. A list should be printed and displayed in the foyer and will have your case name and room number. If you can’t find the room, approach a court officer to ask for directions. Court officers wear either a red badge or a uniform and assist with the case.

Once you get to the appropriate courtroom, let the court officer there know you’ve arrived so you can be told where to wait for your case to be called. If you have a lawyer representing you during the hearing, find where they are and discuss where you’ll be waiting instead. The judicial officer will approach your lawyer at the bar table when your case is ready to be heard, or you will be called by the court officer to speak to the judicial officer if representing yourself. If you plan to leave the area, notify a court officer so your case isn’t heard without you being there.

During the Hearing

Courts have a formality to them. Some people may bow when they enter or leave the courtroom as a show of respect to the court, but bowing isn’t a requirement of anyone. While in the room, note the judge, who’s dressed in a red, black, or purple robe with a traditional wig, and the magistrate, dressed in black robes but no wig. 

Turn off your cell phone and sit quietly while in the courtroom, and do not interrupt the proceedings for whatever reason. Do not eat or drink, take photographs, or make audio or video recordings, and do not approach or speak with any member of the jury. Being caught with your phone out can lead the judicial officer to think you’re doing something illegal, which would result in you either being asked to leave the court or arrested. Video and audio recording is prohibited unless permission is gained beforehand. 

When your case is up, you’ll be led to either stand at a microphone or sit at the bar table. Stand when you speak and address the judge and magistrate as “your honour” when speaking to them.

Famous Australian Court Cases

The similarity in many historic or famous court cases is that a law has been interpreted differently than ever before. These cases can influence future cases of the same nature and stir up a lot of controversy. 

Here is a breakdown of a few of the most famous cases in Australian history.

Chamberlain vs. the Queen

In 1984 this murder trial was widely broadcast and the public was torn. The case was centred on the death of an infant that died while camping with her family on holiday. The prosecution’s claim was that the baby was murdered by her mother, while the defence argued that she was actually killed by a dingo. At the time, the eyewitness testimony was not strong and backed the defendant. Furthermore, blood testing was questionable. However, at the end of the trial the mother, Chamberlain, was found guilty. This case is a good example of an inference of guilt because the prosecution’s case was circumstantial and depended on forensic evidence. Many believed the prosecution did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1986 new evidence emerged, indicating that the infant may have actually been killed by a dingo. Chamberlain was released and eventually acquitted.

Mabo vs. Queensland

This court case took over a decade to reach a conclusion. The plaintiff’s were Meriam people, arguing that they were entitled to the Mer Islands and sought a possessory title because of long possession. Queensland government believed that when the Crown’s dominions settled into the territory the law of England became the law of that colony, giving the Crown ownership of the land. The high court’s final decision was that all laws imported from England to new land did not apply in situations where inhabitants were already present. This case rewrote the national law land and recognized Indigenous Australians as the original inhabitants. The ruling allowed Indigenous people all over Australia to claim traditional rights to land and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius.

Commonwealth vs. Tasmania

This case ended in an environmental victory and became a constitutional landmark. In 1983 the issue arose from the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Tasmanian government wanted the legal right to build the dam while the Federal government cited the World Heritage Convention as a reason to oppose construction. The Federal government won in High Court with a majority, 4:3 and preserved a large part of Australian wilderness.

These three examples are a few influential cases that showcase how law and the interpretation of it evolves. In most circumstances cases follow precedents, however, there are always exceptions.