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Common(wealth) Knowledge #99: Bruce Lehrmann and the importance of committal hearings

Sometimes, media attention can be good for the justice system.

As Bruce Lehrmann faces financial demands after his failed defamation case against Network 10 and Lisa Wilkinson, he, once again, faces the criminal justice system, this time in Queensland.

He is charged with 2 counts of rape, which can carry a life sentence if convicted, under section 349 of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld).

However, before his trial before the Toowoomba District Court can begin, he must first appear before the Magistrates Court, which he did on 17 June.

This ‘committal hearing’ will determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed for a full trial, given that the criminal standard is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt.’

The media usually overlook this step in criminal proceedings, as it doesn’t happen immediately after a newsworthy offence is allegedly committed, and it doesn’t involve a conviction or an acquittal.

Despite this, they act as a ‘filter’ or ‘screening process’ that enables the twin goals of the court: efficient and effective justice.

Time and money are finite resources. Supreme Courts can only hear so many cases. Some jurisdictions, due to population demands, also have District/County courts that hear many serious offences, including rape, but not offences like murder.

But, even then, the courts are overwhelmed. So Magistrate/Local Courts were given the responsibility of handling committal hearings. Here, cases that have insufficient evidence to warrant a proper trial get dismissed, to save the time of the trial courts and the defendants.

Committal hearings allow the prosecution to present its evidence to prove that it has enough for a trial with the criminal standard of proof. Generally, the defendant will not be expected to give evidence.

In a committal with cross-examination, like Bruce Lehrmann’s, the defendant’s lawyers can cross-examine witnesses presented by the prosecution, but cannot offer any original evidence.

These prevent useless cases from clogging up the court system, which delays justice in proper cases.

A similar situation arises in High Court appeals. As the highest court in Australia, it can only hear the most important appeals. An appellant must seek ‘special leave for appeal’ from the court. At least 2 judges will determine if an appeal has any merits, and dismiss those that don’t.

The same thing happened to Julian Assange when he was granted leave to appeal by the UK Court of Appeal. His leave was granted, but that only means the court is willing to hear his case, not that it will rule in his favour. However, this is no longer necessary, thanks to his plea deal.

Courts of Appeal, the appellate branch of the Supreme Court, have a similar system. If an appeal has no merits, the three judges will unanimously dismiss the appeal. If any of the three believes it to be worth hearing, leave to appeal will be granted.

Unlike the High Court, the Courts of Appeal do not make separate judgments, one for the leave application and one for the actual appeal. In one judgment, they can both allow the appeal, because it has merits, but still rule against the appellant.

However, not all filters are the same.

If a party wants their case transferred to another state, they must seek leave from their Supreme Court first. There must be a genuine legal basis for this transfer. The party must demonstrate that the other court has better jurisdiction, rather than simply ‘window shopping’ to find a state where they could get the best deal, such as more compensation.

While this may not necessarily be seen as ‘efficient,’ because it requires more court hearings, it meets the ‘effective’ criterion. It ensures a fairer hearing that protects the rights of all parties.

As the High Court said in Breavington v Godleman, it is “manifestly absurd that the one set of facts occurring in one [jurisdiction] may give rise to different legal consequences depending upon the location or venue of the court in which action is brought.”

If the wrong jurisdiction’s laws are applied to a case, it doesn’t do true justice for all the parties involved. In other words, it is ineffective.

And this is the essence of committal hearings and other filters. Effectiveness and efficiency must come together to do justice, because a trial is a costly endeavour, both financially and emotionally.

While a court may issue a ‘costs order,’ requiring the prosecution to pay the defendant's legal fees in a case that wasn’t worth hearing, no court order can compensate a defendant for the emotional toll it takes on them.

We know that some people are acquitted after spending years in prison because some exonerating evidence was found. Stopping all wrongful convictions is impossible, but committal hearings and other ‘filters’ are the courts’ attempt at reducing them.

To take it to the extreme, a committal hearing may prevent a person wrongfully charged with murder from being tried before the Supreme Court. Even though it is a weak case, without a committal hearing to prevent it from being brought, it may cause emotional harm that leads to anxiety disorders or trauma that stay with a person for the rest of their life.

We know that people who were imprisoned before being acquitted can develop these disorders, so even though committal hearings are mostly just a formality, we can’t see the importance of their job until we remove them from the legal system, and see the harm that this absence causes.

Regardless of whatever comes out of this trial, this media attention may, for once, actually good for the justice system, as it shines a light on an unsung hero of the efficient and effective justice system.


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