Key Players in the Court

Courts have a number of participants who each play an important role in making sure that the legal system works effectively. They can be grouped into four key roles:

  • decision makers;
  • other court officials;
  • parties; and
  • representatives.

Decision makers in courts

There are two key types of decision makers in the courts: judicial officers and juries. Not all courts or court cases involve juries. All courts and court cases involve judicial officers. Judicial officers in different courts have different titles:

  • Local Court judicial officers are called magistrates;
  • in all other courts the judicial officers are called judges.

Both magistrates and judges are also now referred to in court as ‘Your Honour’.

Juries

Generally, juries are involved in criminal cases involving indictable offences, however they do also sit in civil matters as well. A person charged with an indictable offence can ask to have the case heard by a judge and jury. A jury in a criminal case is made up of 12 people, all of whom are adult citizens.

The judge’s role, where a jury is used, is to make decisions about how the case is run, such as whether or not the law allows certain evidence to be presented to the jury. Once both parties have presented all of their evidence, the judge instructs the jury on the areas of the case which it is their responsibility to decide. For every criminal offence there are certain ‘elements’ that have to be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in order for the accused person to be found guilty. So the judge has to outline what those things are that have to be proved, and also has to explain to the jury what ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ means.

The role of the jury is then to decide the facts of the case, that is, what the evidence proves happened and whether the evidence proves what the judge has said must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. This is done away from the courtroom, in secret.

The jury then come back to the court with their decision.

Once the jury has made its decision, the judge’s final role is to decide what the penalty (in a criminal trial) or remedy (in a civil case) is to be.

Decision makers in tribunals

Generally, a tribunal is a decision-making body that is made up of more than one person. There are no juries in tribunals. The make-up of a tribunal is set out in the Act of Parliament that sets up the particular tribunal.

There are a number of different titles used for tribunal members depending on the Act that sets up the tribunal. If the tribunal has a judicial member who is a judge or magistrate, then they are referred to in the same way as they would be in court. If the tribunal is chaired by a lawyer who is not a judicial officer, they may be called ‘President’, and the other members may simply be called ‘Member’.

Court officials

There are a range of staff working in the court system to make sure that it runs efficiently. These include:

  • Registrars and their staff: these people manage the court or tribunal’s registry. This includes being responsible for accepting documents related to a case and making sure that all the documents relating to a case are on the court or tribunal’s file for that case. Registrars also manage the early stages of a lot of cases, by setting deadlines for parties to produce documents and to come to court; and
  • Sheriff’s Office staff: the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for assisting the courts in a range of ways, including delivering documents that are issued by courts, making sure that the courts have enough security and helping with juries. This staff most often includes the Bailiff who calls witnesses into proceedings in the courtroom.

Parties

There are always at least two parties in any case that is to be decided by the courts: the party that is bringing the case to court and the party that is responding to the case.

When a criminal case is heard, the party bringing the case:

  • always represents the Crown, either as the Federal or the State Government;
  • is called the prosecutor; and
  • is represented either by a Police Officer or a Police Prosecutor (generally for less serious cases), or by the Public Prosecutor.

The party responding to the case where it is a criminal matter is called the ‘defendant’ or ‘accused’. They will often be represented by Legal Aid or by a Public Defender.

When a civil case is heard, the party bringing the case is called the ‘plaintiff’. The party responding to the case is usually called the ‘respondent’.

When a case is an administrative law matter, the party bringing the case is often called the ‘applicant’, and the party responding is called the ‘respondent’.

Representatives

Parties in court cases are usually represented by someone else. This may be a legal practitioner (a solicitor or a barrister), a police officer, or a public prosecutor.

Parties can also be self-represented and often are in the lower courts, or in Family law proceedings.

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