If you are charged with a crime and required to attend court, chances are you will get lots of well-meaning advice from family and friends. However, in this situation it is easy to make things worse for yourself, and there are three critical steps you should take without delay.
Firstly, make sure you know exactly what you have been charged with and what the consequences might be if you are found guilty of the offence. The police will have given you or sent you a document called an “information” (in some jurisdictions this is called a charge-sheet, and may sometimes be accompanied by a summons requiring you to attend court). This document will state what the charge is, but it won’t usually say the penalty or other consequences of being convicted. Even if you have been told the maximum penalty prescribed for the offence, there are sometimes other consequences of being found guilty that are far worse than the prescribed penalty. For example, if you are convicted of a drug possession offence, you might be able to avoid going to jail, but that conviction on your record could mean you are denied entry to many countries around the world. Not a great outcome if you had plans to travel the world! Another example is where a person is charged with indecent assault or child abuse. Even if that criminal charge is dealt with by a fine or community service, it may have lifetime consequences in some jurisdictions if your career or planned career involves working with children. Being convicted of that kind of offence might mean you can never be a foster carer, a teacher, a school counsellor, or even a school janitor (for example). Therefore, a guilty verdict or plea in that situation could lock you out of some career choices forever. You should check this out before entering a guilty plea. Another issue is that sometimes people think a “first offence” rarely results in jail time. While it is true that a first offence may be regarded more leniently, many people do go to jail for first offences. This is especially true for serious drug supply offences, aggravated violence offences, and of course murder. It is therefore a good idea to ask a lawyer about the maximum penalty and other potential consequences of the charge you are facing. In my experience, young adults are particularly at risk of entering a guilty plea if they think they will only have to pay a fine, without considering the potential long-term consequences of having that offence on their criminal record. On many occasions, people in their 40s and 50s have asked for my advice about a problem arising from a conviction they got when they were in their teens or 20s. Sometimes it is possible to find solutions to these kinds of problems, but usually after 20 or 30 years it is just too late. The best time to get the best outcome is at the start when you are first charged. Even where a person is found guilty of an offence, it may be possible to obtain a discharge without conviction – so the offence is not on your record – if the circumstances justify that outcome. Knowing all the possible consequences of a conviction enables you to make the best decisions for your future.
Secondly, if you are subject to bail or an apprehended violence order (AVO – sometimes called a protection order or a domestic violence order), check the bail terms and the restrictions under the AVO. Breaching your bail can lead to it being revoked. Breaching an AVO can lead to fresh charges for the breach. For example, an AVO may ban you from contacting a specific person. If you try to contact that person, police may charge you. Then, even if you are ultimately found not guilty of the original offence, you might nonetheless have a criminal record because of the breach of the AVO. It is critical that you know and understand the restrictions imposed by your bail and AVO terms. While these restrictions on what you can do may be galling, particularly if you deny the offence that you have been charged with, the court takes bail and AVO breaches very seriously. If you don’t think the bail or AVO terms are reasonable, ask a lawyer about getting them changed. A lawyer can talk to police about the terms, and may be able to negotiate more suitable terms that make life easier for you while the case is unresolved. In some situations, police will not agree to new terms, or the court may refuse to approve new terms (even if police agree to them), and so in that situation it may be necessary to have a hearing for the court to decide what terms should apply. Remember that bail is an alternative to your being held in custody pending trial, and if the court is concerned that you might breach your bail terms it can revoke your bail. In that case, you could be held on remand in jail until your case is finished, especially if the charge against you is a serious one or the court views you as a danger to the community. Complying strictly with your bail and AVO terms is one way to convince the court that you have the ability to be a law-abiding citizen. This can sometimes make a difference when it comes to sentencing, because one of the factors that a court must consider when deciding whether to jail an offender is whether that offender is likely to re-offend if released into the community.
Thirdly, talk to a lawyer about your case and ask what steps you should take to get the best outcome. Anything you tell a lawyer about your case is covered by “legal professional privilege”, which means that the lawyer cannot be forced to tell anyone else what you have said. You should therefore trust your lawyer, and answer your lawyer’s questions truthfully so you get the best advice for your situation. In particular, your lawyer needs to be able to advise you about the chances of the charge being proved – i.e., whether you are likely to be found guilty – and how much credit you might get for an early guilty plea. Sometimes an early guilty plea can reduce the sentence by up to twenty-five percent, depending on the sentencing rules or guidelines that apply. A sentencing discount will reduce your fine or prison term, and might even make the difference between your serving your sentence in jail, or being allowed “home detention.” Getting a sentencing discount for an early plea is a reduction worth having if a conviction is inevitable anyway. A lawyer will also advise you about the prospects of defending the charge, in which case you will need help to plan your defence. Although defendants do sometimes appear in court without a lawyer, you should bear in mind that the police are very well resourced and their objective is to have you found guilty. An experienced criminal defence lawyer will have previous experience of similar cases, and will ensure that the police prove their case against you beyond reasonable doubt. Some aspects of criminal law are very complex, and a lawyer can advise you about defences that may be available to you that you might not otherwise know about. In some situations, particularly where you have never been charged with any offence before, a lawyer can suggest ways to get a better outcome. For example, you might be eligible for “diversion” – an option where you may avoid conviction by participating in a prescribed program – or in a traffic case you may get a better outcome if you complete a “traffic offender program” in jurisdictions where a program like that is available.
Lawyers know how to obtain relevant information from the police and other organisations. In some cases, police might omit to disclose facts that could be helpful to you, and a lawyer can check that all necessary disclosures have been made. A lawyer can also check whether police have followed required procedures. Discovery of a serious police error could even lead to a charge being withdrawn in some circumstances. In many cases, police lay multiple charges, and a lawyer can try to negotiate to have more serious charges dropped, or a serious charge downgraded to a lesser one.
Note: This article relates to the situation after you have been charged. If you have not yet been charged, you should ensure that you get legal advice before talking to police or making any admissions.