For all the rhetoric about open courts, and legislation to support a transparent justice system, it can be tough to figure out what’s actually happening in them right now. The High Court does a great job; its website provides a wealth of information about current matters before the court, and matters heard since February 2011.
But the High Court isn’t running criminal trials. So, how can you tell what corporate prosecutions are currently on foot?
Start with the agency
Interested in consumer law crime? Wildlife crime? Visit the website of the relevant regulator to check media releases and recent news published; some agencies provide information about their investigations and regulatory response to misconduct, including notifications on investigations commenced. Sometimes interested third parties keep a roster of current litigation: the Australian competition law website is a good example.
Check the court websites
I’m going to deal with Victoria only; it’s the state I know best. (And it’s the best state.)
Summary offences are heard in the Magistrates’ Court. All listings for filing hearings, mentions, committals, contests, applications, final hearings and pleas are published in the Court Lists. It’s designed for parties, not interested members of the public, so there’s no way to search for particular subject matter. If you don’t have a particular case in mind to look for, try selecting the ‘criminal’ checkbox, and typing ‘ltd’ into the ‘Accused’ field. It’s not going to catch everything, but it will turn up most of the corporate prosecutions currently before the court.
Indictable offences are heard in the County, Supreme and Federal courts.
The County Court publishes listings via Court Connect. It’s a similar system to the Magistrates’ Court; unfortunately, however, it will not return results for a search of the term ‘ltd’. You will have to search for a particular corporate entity to see whether any matters are listed. Things are worse over at the Supreme Court: it only publishes a Daily List; that is, a list of matters heard today (it is published at 4:30pm the preceding day). Past Daily Lists are available for the current year, but only as individual lists. Have fun going through those one at a time. (The court publishes lists of civil cases filed, but not criminal cases.)
The Federal Court has a case listing database. Once again, you will need some idea of what you are looking for. Unfortunately there is no option to limit the search to criminal matters, though the area of law (eg consumer protection) can be selected. As an aside, the Federal Court’s jurisdiction to hear indictable cartel offences was only established in 2010; prior to this the court had no jurisdiction to adjudicate indictable offences at all; there was no accommodation for jurors in the court-rooms. Some of the history of the development of Commonwealth criminal law is explained by Justice Weinberg, and the challenges presented by a new indictable offence jurisdiction to Commonwealth lawyers explored by Justice Gordon.
Appeals from Magistrates’ Court matters are heard in the County Court: these cases are run as de novo trials (see details above for identification of Magistrates’ Court cases).
Appeals from the County and Supreme Courts are heard in the Court of Appeal (Court of Appeal listings appear on the Supreme Court daily list; see details above).
Appeals from the Court of Appeal and Federal Court are heard in the High Court of Australia; it does not provide a search function, so you will need to scroll through its current cases list to see whether corporate criminal matters have been appealed.
In reality, very few corporate offences are being prosecuted in the higher courts. That is largely explained by the fact that most offences contained in the legislation prosecuted by regulators are summary offences; and historically regulators have not charged Crimes Act offences like theft, deception crimes, assault, destruction of evidence and homicide, considering those the province of police forces only. Perhaps both these matters will change over time.