The procedure for criminal cases is governed by the Criminal Procedure Act 2011(external link). Criminal cases begin when the Police (or other prosecutor) file a charging document with the Court. A charging document is the formal method of accusing someone of breaking the law. The person accused of committing the offence, the “defendant”, is then summoned to the Court. If the defendant pleads not guilty to the charge, the case is put off or “adjourned” for the Judge to hear the evidence against the person in a trial. If the defendant pleads guilty or the charge against the defendant is later proved beyond reasonable doubt, a conviction may follow, and the Judge then sentences the defendant.
Trials relating to charges which are punishable by a non-prison sentence, or a prison sentence of less than two years, are conducted by a Judge without a jury. More serious charges are heard before a Judge and a jury. If a defendant is charged with an offence that carries a penalty of two years’ imprisonment or more, he or she can usually elect trial by jury.
In New Zealand every citizen is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Alleged offenders can be granted bail by the Police or Court, allowing them to remain in the community while they await trial.
The Judge will make a decision based on criteria contained in the Bail Act 2000. There are rights of appeal. Bail may be granted on conditions which restrict a defendant’s freedom prior to appearing. The most extreme form of restriction while on bail is to be fitted with a bracelet for electronic monitoring, which is suitable for some people who might otherwise be kept in custody.
If a person is found guilty of an offence, a judge will consider the appropriate sentence. Even if the person has been tried by a jury, it is the judge who will determine the final sentence. The judge will make a decision according to the relevant statutes passed by Parliament (particularly the Sentencing Act 2002), and precedents of the higher courts. There are many different types of sentences, including imprisonment, fines, convictions, home detention and community detention.
In rare cases, the District Court may discharge a person without a conviction, even if he or she has been found or pleaded guilty. If a person applies for a discharge without conviction, a judge must carefully consider the laws decided by Parliament, particularly sections 106 and 107 of the Sentencing Act 2002. A judge must follow what is set out in the Sentencing Act 2002 — he or she can only interpret Parliament’s laws.
In order to ensure public accountability, most District Court hearings can be attended or published by anyone. However, sometimes aspects of a case will be suppressed. The aspects suppressed cannot be published or reported.
There are many reasons why a case may be suppressed. Sometimes it will be to protect a victim or a witness. For example, in a case involving family violence, if the defendant’s name is published then other people might be able to discover who the victim is, causing them distress. In other cases, names are suppressed to ensure there is a fair trial. A defendant may also apply to have their name suppressed in order to protect themselves, but only if naming them would cause them “extreme hardship”, such as serious health problems.