You have been given a Notice to Appear at court for a traffic offence. You must show up to court on the date specified in the Notice to Appear. The question is, what happens on the first court date? In this post, we will outline the options you have for dealing with your matter. In short, you have three options: seek an adjournment, plead not guilty, or plead guilty. We will discuss each of these options in turn.
Option #1 – Ask for an Adjournment
You are not obliged to enter a plea (of either guilty or not guilty) on the first court date if you are not sure about the implications of entering a plea. You are entitled to ask the court to adjourn your matter to a later date. If you ask for an adjournment, the charge remains before the court. You will need to return to court on the later date.
There two main reasons why you may wish to adjourn your matter.
The first is to get legal advice. It is always a good idea to discuss your matter with a lawyer, so you understand the possible consequences of your intended course of action. Police Prosecutors and Magistrates cannot give you legal advice. Please also be aware that, while most courts have a duty-lawyer service available, these services (generally) do not provide advice about traffic matters.
If you tell the Magistrate that you wish to get legal advice, the Magistrate will usually adjourn your matter for about 2 weeks and will (usually) grant you bail. You will be expected to have contacted a lawyer and have received advice by the time you return to court.
The second reason to ask for an adjournment is because you want to apply for a work licence. Work licences are only available in specific circumstances, so you should ascertain whether you are eligible for a work licence before informing the court that you wish to make an application.
Applications for work licences have strict requirements (such as preparing, filing, and serving affidavits, etc) that must be adhered to before the court can consider your application. If you tell the court that you want to apply for a work licence, the court will generally adjourn your matter for about 2 weeks so you can comply with these requirements.
Please also note that some courts have specific times on specific days to hear work licence applications. These days and times can change from year to year. It is a good idea to check the court’s calendar to find out to when you can expect your matter to be adjourned.
Option #2 – Plead Guilty
If you have already decided to plead guilty, you have the option to enter your plea on the first court date. For the majority of traffic offences, the court will finalise your matter as soon as you enter your plea.
That means that, on the first date, you will be convicted, and penalties will be imposed on you (for example, a fine and drivers licence disqualification). These penalties take effect the moment that they are imposed. For example, once the court disqualifies you from driving, you are disqualified from that moment. If the court orders you be released on probation (if your traffic offence is sufficiently serious), you are subject to the conditions of your probation from that moment.
Therefore, it is important that you are prepared for the consequences of any penalties that the court might impose. For example, do not drive to court if you intend to plead guilty to an offence that carries licence disqualification as a mandatory penalty, because you will not be permitted to drive home. You will need to make other arrangements to get home from court that day.
Please also be aware that, once you have entered a plea of guilty, it is exceedingly difficult to have this plea revoked if you change your mind. It is also exceedingly difficult to persuade the court to delay imposing penalties (that is, adjourning your matter) if you suddenly realise that the penalties might be harsher than you anticipated. You should only plead guilty if you are fully prepared for the consequences.
On the other hand, there are some benefits to pleading guilty on the first court date. For example, if you are charged with certain traffic offences (such as a mid-range or high-range drink-driving charge), your licence is suspended from the moment that you are charged until your matter is finalised by the court. Any subsequent court-ordered disqualification takes effect from the date that you are convicted. The court cannot back-date its disqualification to the date of the charge. Therefore, the time that your licence is suspended (including during the time of any adjournments) is served in addition to the disqualification imposed on you as a penalty.
Option #3 – Plead Not Guilty
If you decide to fight the charge, you may plead not guilty on the first court date. By pleading not guilty, you are putting the onus on the court to decide whether you have committed the offence that the police allege you committed, or not. The only way that the court can make this decision is by means of a trial. In the Magistrates Court, a trial is referred to as a “summary hearing”.
A summary hearing involves calling evidence, listening to witnesses, cross examination, submissions from prosecution and defence, etc. This is an involved process that takes a lot of time. The court cannot go through this process on the first court date, as your matter will be listed along with lots of other peoples’ matters.
Instead, if you enter a plea of not guilty on the first date, the court will pick a date (in at least 2 months’ time, depending on how busy the court is) to hold the summary hearing and adjourn your matter. You will (usually) be granted bail and ordered to return to court to attend the hearing.
There are serious consequences for pleading not guilty and proceeding to trial, especially if you are found guilty by the court. You should only plead not guilty if you understand the case against you and you have received legal advice about your prospects of successfully defending yourself.
In spite of what anyone tells you, you are not obliged to finalise your traffic matter on the first court date. The purpose of the first date is so that you can inform the court how you wish to proceed with your matter, and to allow the court to make orders accordingly.
To repeat, you have three options: to adjourn your matter, to plead guilty, or to plead not guilty. There are advantages and risks associated with all of these options, so it is important that you obtain legal advice as soon as possible so that you can make a fully-informed decision before you go to court.
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