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Criminal Trials Before A Judge Alone: Is It Possible?

Judge's gavel in court

If you have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges and are being tried in the District or Supreme Court then more than likely a jury will determine whether you are guilty or not guilty.

A jury is made up of a panel of 12 people who are selected during the empanelment process. In essence a jury comprises of randomly selected members of the public.

When all of the evidence has been heard at a trial the jury bears the task of determining whether or not the accused is guilty or not guilty of the charges. Following the jury’s decision, the judge decides the sentence to be imposed.

Most criminal trials in the District Court or Supreme Court involve a jury. However, there are circumstances where it is possible to have a trial conducted before a judge alone. In these cases the judge decides whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.

Under What Circumstances Can You Have a Trial Before a Judge Alone?

In Western Australia there is no automatic right to a trial by judge alone. A trial by judge alone is only permitted in circumstances where the applicant can persuade the court that it is in the interests of justice for the trial to proceed that way. The application for a trial by judge alone can be made either by the defendant in the proceedings or by the State Director of Public Prosecutions.

Generally applications for a trial by judge alone are made in circumstances where there is an overwhelming amount of media coverage and attention prior to the trial. These cases often raise concerns as to whether a jury can remain unbiased and impartial. There are concerns about whether the jury can put everything that they have already read, seen or heard out of their mind when determining whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.

An application for a trial by judge alone can also be made in circumstances where the length, or complexity, of the trial would be unreasonably burdensome.

What is the Best Option to Take?

Although jury trials are generally considered the fairest way to decide a criminal matter, some circumstances may give rise to a judge alone trial being a better option.

There have been a number of high-profile judge alone trials in Western Australia recently. The State of WA v Lloyd Rayney and The State of Western Australia v Francis Wark are examples. Soon the accused Bradley Edwards’ trial will commence before a judge alone.

Recently, notwithstanding the significant publicity, Cardinal George Pell’s trial was heard before a jury. That’s because Cardinal Pell’s case was heard in the State of Victoria where the law does not provide for a trial by judge alone. Cardinal Pell’s case has prompted criminal lawyers and other members of the legal profession to consider the value of a trial by judge alone in cases that attract significant media attention.

Benefits of a judge-alone trial?

A trial by judge alone can be beneficial in certain circumstances.

When a judge delivers their verdict, they must give reasons for their decision. Being informed of the reasons why a judge decided on a guilty verdict makes the process more transparent. It can show that the decision was made solely on an assessment of the evidence as opposed to a decision based on sympathy, prejudice or emotion.

In cases involving a trial by jury, the jury deliberations are held behind closed doors in secret and the jury is not required to provide reasons for the basis of their decision. There is therefore no way of knowing whether the decision was made from a dispassionate and clinical assessment of the evidence.

In complex cases it can also be difficult for jurors to comprehend certain issues. These cases might typically involve expert scientific evidence, or large amounts of forensic materials. In these cases, judges are better equipped to analyse the evidence and know what aspects of the evidence they should direct more attention to.

The benefits of a jury trial

Advocates of jury trials highlight the fairness of having a group of people being delegated the task of making the decision as opposed to putting the responsibility in the hands of a single person.

Proponents of the jury system argue that judges provide strong directions to jurors about the importance of focussing solely on the evidence and that the court’s faith in juries to perform that task is well established. They also believe that a jury trial can more accurately reflect the views of the community because the jury is randomly selected from members of the public.

It has also been said that juries are a crucial part of our judicial system and there is no reason that the right decision should not be reached between 12 ordinary citizens who have carefully assessed the evidence presented to the court. A single judge may be out of touch with the views of regular society, and their decision may not reflect the values of the community as a whole.

What type of trial would be best for me?

If you are pleading not guilty and proceeding to trial in the District or Supreme Court the option of applying for a judge-only trial may be available to you.

The decision will invariably depend on the specific circumstances of your case and more particularly the extent to which any pre trial publicity may have the potential of giving rise to bias and prejudice.

If you believe that a judge-alone trial is a matter that requires consideration for your case, seek legal advice from an experienced criminal lawyer at the Law Offices of Andrew Williams.

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