The guilty plea and the transformation of the criminal trial

L. Durnian

Griffith University,

The rising rates of guilty pleas to serious criminal offences has transformed the prosecution process. While some studies link this historical development to the emergence of plea bargaining practices in nineteenth century American courts, scholars have neglected the origins of this phenomenon in the Australian legal system where there has been a reluctance to acknowledge that plea-bargaining exists. This paper addresses the issue of the guilty plea by examining prosecution practices during the twentieth century in Australian Supreme Courts. It extends previous historical plea-bargaining research, providing a more nuanced examination of the relationship between guilty pleas and particular criminal offences. This paper employs data from the Prosecution Project, an emerging database of historical criminal trials across multiple Australian jurisdictions. It analyses data from more than 7,000 criminal trials between 1901 and 1961 in the Queensland and Victorian Supreme Courts. It identifies the points in time when guilty pleas first dominated case outcomes, and explores the relationship between the accelerating proportions of guilty pleas and specific criminal offences. It provides examples of individual criminal cases to highlight the specific factors driving defendants’ pleas to these offences.


Ms Lisa Durnian joined the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University in 2014. She is an ARC Laureate PhD candidate with the Prosecution Project, which is investigating the history of the criminal trial in Australia. Her doctoral research explores the structural mechanisms that led to system transformation in criminal trials; that is, the shift from traditional jury trials to the current phenomena where most criminal matters end in guilty pleas. Her thesis involves mixed-methods analyses to track changes in the disposition of criminal cases over time.


The society is devoted to promoting criminological study, research and practice in the region and bringing together persons engaged in all aspects of the field. The membership of the society reflects the diversity of persons involved in the field, including practitioners, academics, policy makers and students.

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