When an accused person pleads guilty to a criminal offence in a court, they are formally making a concession that the prosecution can prove the elements of the offence to the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Although a plea of guilty does not necessarily mean an accused admits to every particular of the case against them, it is still a powerful statement by an accused that they are admitting their guilt of the offence to the world.   

Whether an accused can appeal their conviction after a plea of guilty mostly depends on the jurisdiction in which they plead guilty. State and Federal offences are prosecuted almost entirely in the Magistrates’ Court, County Court and Supreme Court. 

Plea of Guilty in Magistrates’ Court, Conviction Appeal to the County Court

In Victoria, an accused still has a de novo (heard afresh) right of appeal from the Magistrates’ Court to the County Court for both conviction and sentence appeals. A de novo appeal means that the County Court hears the case afresh, is not bound by anything determined in the lower court and must hear the case as though it was being heard for the first time. 

For conviction appeals heard in the County Court, the prosecution derives no benefit from the earlier conviction in the Magistrates’ Court. An accused is not bound by his or her plea in the Magistrates’ Court and may, if they wish to do so, file a conviction appeal after a plea of guilty in the Magistrates’ Court and have the case heard as a plea of not guilty in the County Court. The prosecution is not entitled to rely on the accused’s earlier plea of guilty at the conviction appeal. 

Plea of Guilty at Committal, Plea of Not Guilty at Trial

If an accused is charged with an indictable offence proceeding through the committal process in the Magistrates’ Court, at the conclusion of committal proceedings the accused will be invited to plead guilty or not guilty to the offence or offences charged. If the accused refuses to enter a plea, the court will take this to be a plea of not guilty. When an accused pleads guilty in these circumstances, they are formally entering a plea of guilty in the lower court which brings an end to committal proceedings. At this point, the Accused is ‘committed’ to either the County Court or the Supreme Court. 

However, the accused is not bound by this plea of guilty and has the right to change their plea in the higher court. After they have been committed for trial to the County or Supreme Court, a formal document called an indictment needs to be filed by the prosecution and the accused must enter a plea at a hearing called an arraignment (this must be before the jury pool if it is a plea of not guilty). Even though an accused may have entered a guilty plea at the end of committal proceedings, the accused may plead not guilty at the arraignment if they wish to do so.  

However, if an accused pleads guilty at the conclusion of the committal, and then enters a plea of not guilty at trial, the prosecution may be entitled to rely on evidence of the plea of guilty as evidence against the accused to prove the charge against them. Whether the prosecution can use the evidence in this way depends on the circumstances in which the accused pleaded guilty at the committal, as well as other factors. 

Plea of Guilty in the County and Supreme Courts, Conviction Appeal to the Court of Appeal

If an accused is convicted in the County Court or the trial division of the Supreme Court and wishes to appeal their conviction, they must appeal the conviction to the Court of Appeal. Appealing against conviction where the accused has pleaded guilty on arraignment in the County Court or Supreme Court is very difficult. It is only in very exceptional circumstances that the Court of Appeal will set aside a conviction following a plea of guilty by an accused. 

In assessing whether such circumstances exist, the Accused will usually need to demonstrate that the plea of guilty itself was infected by some sort of serious error and that this has resulted in a substantial miscarriage of justice. This does not include situations where the accused has had a change of mind since they entered their plea and now wishes to ‘put the prosecution to its proof’ and argue a defence. Examples of very exceptional circumstances upheld by the Court of Appeal include situations where it was impossible for the accused to be guilty of the offence at law, where the plea of guilty was induced by threats and the accused’s free will was abrogated, or the offence to which the accused pleaded guilty did not exist (e.g. the offence did not exist at the time the accused was alleged to have committed the offence and had been repealed on an earlier date). 

The Court of Appeal will consider all circumstances of a plea of guilty in assessing whether to set aside the conviction. 

Information accurate as of January 2024. This information may change at any time and so it is always important to get tailored and up-to-date legal advice. 

Contact Galbally Parker Criminal Defence Lawyers

Navigating the legal landscape after pleading guilty can be a complex and challenging journey. While appealing a conviction post guilty plea is not impossible, it requires a thorough understanding of the legal process, a compelling basis for appeal, and skilled legal representation. 

If you find yourself questioning the fairness or legality of your conviction, consult with an experienced attorney to explore your options. Remember, the right legal guidance can make a significant difference in your case. Take proactive steps to protect your rights and seek justice. Contact our legal team today for a confidential consultation to discuss the specifics of your situation and determine the best course of action. Your future may depend on it. We assist clients across Melbourne with their criminal matters, including Frankston, Moorabbin, Werribee and Dandenong.