In Queensland, traffic and criminal offences are separated into different classifications depending on the nature of the offence. These are set out in section 3 of the Queensland Criminal Code:
- Simple Offences; and
- Regulatory offences.
It is important to understand the difference between these different classifications as they determine which punishments and penalties might apply, which court will deal with the case and more.
Offences which have been classified as crimes are generally the most serious offences in Queensland and include murder, rape and so on.
The wording of the offence itself will indicate whether the offence is classified as a crime or not. For example, the offence of Assault Occasioning Bodily Harm states:
Any person who unlawfully assaults another and thereby does the other person bodily harm is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for 7 years.
An offence which has been classified as a crime is an “indictable offence”. The criminal proceedings will therefore be prosecuted by way of an “indictment” which is a document containing the charge or charges and will be heard in either the District Court or the Supreme Court.
Over time, however, the jurisdiction of the Magistrates Courts has increased and they have been given greater powers to hear indictable offences in those lower courts.
In some cases, either the prosecution or the defendant has the choice whether indictable charges should be heard in the Magistrates Court or whether they should go to a higher court. For example, a defendant who has been charged with Assault Occasioning Bodily Harm has the right to choose whether that charge should be dealt with in the Magistrates Court or the District Court.
In other cases, the indictable charges might have to be heard in the Magistrates Court or a higher court. For example, the crime of murder must be dealt with in the Supreme Court whereas the crime of threatening violence must be dealt with in the Magistrates Court.
Generally speaking, a person who is suspected of committing a crime in Queensland can be arrested without a warrant.
Like crimes, a misdemeanour is also an indictable offence which means that it is generally dealt with in the District Court or Supreme Court. The primary difference however between crimes and misdemeanours in Queensland is that the police usually need to have a warrant before they can arrest a person suspected of committing a misdemeanour.
The Criminal Code specifies whether an offence is a misdemeanour or not. For example, the offence of common assault states that:
Any person who unlawfully assaults another is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable, if no greater punishment is provided, to imprisonment for 3 years.
Just like crimes, misdeameanours are generally dealt with in a higher court but can also be dealt with in the Magistrates Court either by the election of the defence or prosecution, or as required by law.
Simple offences (also known as a “summary offence” or “non-indictable offence”) are all other offences which are not indictable offences or regulatory offences (discussed below).
In Queensland, the Criminal Code refers to simple offences as simply “offences”. For example, section 234(1) Criminal Code states that:
A person who conducts an unlawful game commits an offence.
Other common examples of simple offences which are not in the Criminal Code include:
- Drink driving
- Public nuisance.
If an offence does not specifically state its classification, it will be regarded as a simple offence.
As a general rule, simple offences will be dealt with in the Magistrates Court in front of a Magistrate only. However if a person wants to plead guilty to a simple offence and they want to have it dealt with at the same time as more serious charges in the District or Supreme court, they can apply to have the simple offence transferred to the higher court for that purpose.
In some circumstances, it is also possible for a Magistrate to deal with a simple offence in the absence of the defendant. This is known as proceeding “ex parte”. However before a magistrate can proceed on this basis, they need to be satisfied that the defendant was given valid notice of their court appearance, either in the form of a Notice To Appear or a Complaint and Summons.
The Magistrate also cannot impose a prison sentence if the case is being dealt with ex parte and they cannot order a driver licence disqualification unless the defendant has been sent a warning notice advising that if they fail to appear again, their licence will be disqualified on that second court appearance.
Regulatory offences are a small group of offences set out in the Regulatory Offences Act:
- Unauthorised dealing with shop goods (an alternative to stealing);
- Leaving hotel etc. without payment (an alternative to fraud); and
- Unauthorised damage to property (an alternative to wilful damage).
Regulatory offences are in an unusual position compared to all other offences committed in Queensland as special rules and exceptions apply when they are being dealt with in the courts.
For example, the usual defences that can be relied upon are not available to these offences (however there are some defences set out in the charges themselves).
Penalties for regulatory offences are limited to fines and they must be dealt with in the Magistrates Court in front of a Magistrate only.