Summary case conference not the time to dismiss charges

Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 provides for summary case conferences between the prosecution and accused in a summary proceeding.

It’s essentially a case-flow management system, or compulsory pre-trial conference, intended to make the parties sit down and sensibly resolve what can be resolved, and identify with some precision and particularity issues that can’t be resolved, so valuable court time is used productively.

There’s deliberately not a lot of detail in the Act about how or where a summary case conference should happen, to make it as flexible as possible for the parties to talk. The Magistrates’ Court’s Practice Direction 6 of 2009 Summary Case Conference Procedure doesn’t add much, and nor does rule 21 of the Magistrates’ Court Criminal Procedure Rules 2009.

But a recent South Australian decision considering similar provisions there suggests that while summary case conferences are subject to curial control, they’re not a step in the curial process and so the court can’t dismiss charges at that stage — even if they’re called into open court.

A magistrate dismissed a charge of criminal damage at a pre-trial conference, largely because the prosecution had stuffed around for too long and hadn’t complied with its disclosure obligations.

The Supreme Court held in Police v Beard [2010] SASC 49 that the magistrate didn’t have the power to do that at a pre-trial stage — but in some cases either a permanent stay or costs order would be warranted.

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