Under Queensland’s Criminal Code, charges in the higher courts (the District and Supreme Courts) are contained on a document called an indictment. The general rule is that an indictment must only contain one offence. In this article, we look at when multiple criminal charges can be tried at the same time. We also look at a case where multiple charges were joined on the same indictment, however, the court found this should not have occurred.
When a person is charged with multiple criminal offences in Queensland, the charges may be joined on the same indictment against the same person only if all charges are based on the same facts or form part of a series of offences of the same or similar character, or a series of offences committed in the prosecution of a single purpose.
It is the prosecution who initially decides how many charges are joined on an indictment.
If the defendant objects to the joining of any of those charges (i.e. objects to them being heard together), they can apply to the court for separate trials (or to “sever the indictment”). Doing so usually involves demonstrating to the court that the defendant would be unfairly prejudiced by the charges all being heard together.
These principles were recently considered in some detail by the Queensland Court of Appeal in the case of R vs Smith  QCA105, delivered on 14 May 2021.
On the 11th day of the trial, after all the evidence had been heard, the defendant decided to plead guilty to all charges except the murder. He was convicted of that charge the following day.
On appeal, the defendant’s (new) lawyers argued that the failure to sever the count of murder from the other counts on the indictment gave rise to a miscarriage of justice.
The court considered the application of the joinder (joining all the charges under the one indictment) and separate trial provisions of the Criminal Code in the context of this case.
The court set out a number of principles relevant to the consideration of when to join and when to separate multiple charges:
In Smith’s case, the court concluded that evidence of the stealing offences was directly relevant to the murder count (to prove the defendant’s presence in the house), and the risk arising from that evidence was not so great that it could not be removed by an adequate direction to the jury by the trial judge.
However, the risk of prejudice from the evidence about the sexual offences was very high. The evidence concerning the sexual offences could have been excluded without rendering the narrative of the night’s events concerning the murder unintelligible.
Consequently, the court held that the sexual offence counts should have been tried separately from the murder and stealing counts. Smith’s murder conviction was set aside and the court ordered he undergo a new trial for murder.
If you’ve been charged with multiple criminal offences and the prosecution intends to join all charges in the one indictment, you should seek legal advice from an experienced criminal lawyer to ensure your rights at trial are protected.
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This article is of a general nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you require further information, advice or assistance for your specific circumstances, please contact Gilshenan & Luton, Criminal & Employment Lawyers Brisbane and Sunshine Coast, Queensland.