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Court terminology

Following is a short guide to terminology:

Bench clerk

The bench clerk is the person who sits at the bench in front of the magistrate and who calls out the name of the cases as they take their turn to be heard. They also swear in witnesses before they give their evidence.

Committal hearing

A preliminary hearing before a magistrate to decide if the matter should go to trial.

Defendant & accused

In a criminal proceeding, a defendant faces a charge before a magistrate; an accused faces a higher court.

In a civil proceeding, a defendant is the person against whom an action (for compensation or some other remedy) is brought by a plaintiff or complainant.

Expert witness

A highly qualified person in a particular area who is able to give opinion evidence in his or her area of expertise.

Hearing & trial

A hearing is before a magistrate, a trial before a higher court (generally before a jury).


A judge sits in the County Court, a justice sits in a state's Supreme Court (or in the High Court of Australia).


A magistrate is the person who has control of the court. They will ultimately decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, and where necessary, what is the appropriate penalty as punishment for the offence.


The prosecutor is the person who conducts the police case in court. They are usually police officers in Magistrates' Court hearings. If the defendant is pleading not guilty, the prosecutor will call police witnesses and other witnesses to give evidence against the defendant. They will also cross-examine the defendant's witnesses. If the defendant is pleading guilty, the prosecutor will give a summary of the circumstances of the charges against the defendant to the magistrate.


Registrars are court officials who are responsible for the administration of the courts. If the person charged, or any other person, has any questions about the court process, hearing dates etc, they should contact the registrar.

Statute & common law

Statutes or Acts are laws passed by Parliament. Common law is mostly supplementary to, and interpretative of statutes, and is made by judges through previous court decisions.

Summary & indictable offences

Summary offences are heard by magistrates; indictable offences are more serious and, either the prosecution or the defendant can request to have the charges heard in a trial before a judge and jury in the County Court. Some indictable offences are so serious that they must be heard in the County Court. Most demonstration/activist charges will be heard before a magistrate.