What is Criminal Law?

Australian Criminal law was developed from common law and statutes enacted by the government, such as the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). It is chiefly controlled by the State; however, an increasing component of criminal law is made by the government, such as the Anti-Terrorism Act (No. 2) 2005 (Cth). The principal function of criminal law is to impose sanctions on people whose conduct is deemed unacceptable enough to warrant punishment by the State.

Australia’s criminal statutes are derived from English criminal law. These statutes define what constitutes a crime, covers appropriate penalties and sentences for different crimes (i.e. murder or assault), as well as matters of court procedure, such as evidence. While general crime acts cover the majority of crimes in detail, other statutes can impose criminal penalties. A prime example is the Privacy Act (1988), which regulates the handling of personal information about individuals.

The major division in criminal law exists between ‘indictable offences’ (previously known as felonies) and ‘summary offences’ (previously known as misdemeanours). Previously, a felony was punishable by death, whereas a misdemeanour was not – so this division created an important distinction for defendants.

Indictable offences are named after the document ‘indictment’, which is prepared on behalf of the ‘Crown’. Theorhetically, the Crown is the Queen, however in practical terms, it is the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Cases are listed as Regina (Latin for Queen) v. Jones, written as ‘R v. Jones’ or ‘The Queen v. Jones’ in States which eschew Latin words.

Summary offences require a trial before a magistrate by way of summons. This is due to the late introduction of civilian jury trials in Australia and the expense associated with them. An example of a crime identified in the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW) is found in Section 4 ‘Offensive Conduct:’ ‘A person must not conduct him or herself in an offensive manner in or near a public place or a school. Maximum penalty: $600 or three months’ imprisonment.’

If you have committed an offence under any criminal law Act, and a ‘guilty’ verdict is reached during the trial, the judge must decree punishment for the guilty party. The range of prison sentences and fines applicable to each crime is set out in statutes, which provide a guide for the judge. Depending on the offence, a variety of prison sentences, suspended sentences or good behaviour bonds may be handed down.