A Brief Guide to the Magistrates Court, Crown Court and all that
This is the court where all criminal cases start, some will finish here and others will go to the Crown Court.
You would have either been summoned (usually it is sent to your home address) or by being charged at the police station after being arrested by the police or another law enforcement agency.
If you are charged you may have been released on bail (with or without conditions )or kept in the police station to appear at the Magistrates Court the next morning (sometimes referred to as being remanded).
What cases stay in the Magistrates’ Court?
Ok This is where things get a little complicated.
The Magistrates’ Court deals with all summary cases and either way cases where the decision is for that case to remain in the Magistrates court.
First thing first. Summary cases are usually minor cases such as drink driving , drunk and disorderly etc. They are cases where the ultimate sentence is not as severe as those imposed by the crown court. This does mean you could still be facing jail but it will be for a short period of time. More about sentencing later.
Either way offences does what it says on the tin ! They can either be decided in the magistrates court or the Crown court Once again where they end up is usually determined on what the likely sentence is if you were to be found guilty 9 but you may also wish to voluntarily have your case heard in the crown court). Examples of these cases are burglary and some assault cases.
The most serious cases are transferred over to the Crown Court. These are cases involving so called ‘indictable only’ offences. Indictable only means that these cases can only be dealt with in the Crown Court. Examples of these offences include murder, robbery, blackmail and most sexual offences.
What happens at the first hearing in the Magistrates’ Court?
In general, cases in the Magistrates’ Court are dealt with in public,although how many members of the public attend varies from day to day. At the first hearing, you should attend at approx 9.30 am (if your case is in the morning) or at 1.30pm (if it’s in the afternoon). You should find the usher or list caller and tell them you are here. If you have a solicitor (or sometimes referred to as “Brief”) then you should let them know. More about briefs later. When you are called to attend court ,the court clerk will ask you to confirm your name and address. It is always a good idea to attend court as smart as possible as it does send out the right message that you are taking this seriously. What happens next depends on the type of offence that you are facing.
Summary only offences (i.e. only in the magistrates court)
If you are facing a summary only offence the clerk will read out the charge and ask whether you plead guilty or not guilty. If you pleads not guilty the case will be adjourned for the trial. The trial does not take place on the first day. The trial is delayed to give the prosecution time to arrange for their witnesses to come to court. You may also require time to arrange for their witnesses to come to court and to prepare your case for trial.
If you plead guilty, then the court will usually give the sentence (whether it is a fine, or a more serious sentence) the same day.(see below for sentences).
Either way offences
If you are facing an ‘either way’ offence, the court will you to say what you intend toplead. You can say guilty, not guilty, or refuse to say a plea at this time. If you say guilty, the court will hear from the prosecution and the defence lawyer and decide whether they can sentence the individual. The Magistrates Court can only give a maximum of 12 months in prison (6 months for only one offence). If they think this is not enough for the offence(s), they can send the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.
If you plead not guilty or have decided not to say what your plea is, the court will hear the opinions of the prosecutor and the criminal defence solicitor as to where the trial should take place (the Crown Court or Magistrates Court ).
At this stage the court has two options; to refuse the case if it is too serious to be dealt with in the Magistrates Court and send it to the Crown Court, or to accept dealing with the case.
If they decide to deal with the case, you will then be asked where you would like the case to be heard; either in the Magistrates Court or in the Crown Court. This means that you can always decide for an ‘either way’ offence to be dealt with in the Crown Court if you wish.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having a trial in the Crown Court or Magistrates Court and youshould always speak to us before making that decision. The main advantage of a trial in the Crown Court is that the number of people found not guilty is much higher, as a jury (12 members of the public) will hear the evidence in the case, and juries are usually considered more likely to believe a defendant than Magistrates Judges.
In the Magistrates Court the evidence is heard by either 3 or 2 lay judges (unqualified lawyers) or by a single district judge (a qualified lawyer). Both lay judges and district judges regularly sit in court. However, in the Crown Court, a jury member will most likely have never been to court before or heard a criminal case. It is sometimes said that in the Magistrates Court lay judges and district judges are cynical in their approach to the evidence due to the number of trials that they hear.
The main disadvantage is that if you are convicted( that is found guilty) then you could receive a harsher sentence than being in the magistrates court.
Magistrates Court Trial
The trial starts with the prosecution summarising the case you. This usually takes a period of a few minutes. This is not the same as evidence but it is the prosecutor’s opportunity to ‘set the scene’ before calling their witnesses.
The prosecution will then call their witnesses. The witnesses will have already provided witness statements, however, those statements are not evidence unless both the defence solicitor and the prosecution agree that they are accurate. If what the witness has said in his or her statement is not agreed then the witness must give evidence in person in court.
Before coming into court, the witnesses will be able to read their witness statements. The court usher will call the witness into court when it is their turn to give evidence. The prosecutor will then ask the witness questions. Their answers are the evidence in the case and they have to swear an oath to tell the truth in court before starting.
Quite often, the evidence that witnesses give in court is different to the account that they gave in their statement. The witnesses may be ‘cross examined’ about their evidence by the criminal defence solicitor. This is the dramatic and sometimes aggressive questioning that people associate with witness evidence in court. The criminal defence solicitor will also put the your version of events to the witness in cross examination.
After the prosecution have called all their witnesses, they will say that their case is closed.
It is then the defence brief’s (or lawyer’s) turn to put the defendant’s case. It may be that having heard all the evidence in the case, the defence brief believes that the prosecution have not brought enough evidence to court to show that the offence took place. If this is the case, the defence brief may argue that ‘there is no case to answer’. In general it is legal points that are raised at this stage rather than attacking the believability of the witnesses’ evidence. If the court agrees with this argument, then the case will be stopped and a not-guilty verdict entered. If, however, the court believes that there is evidence, then the case will continue and the defence will have to make their case.
You will be the first person to give evidence for the your case. Any defence witnesses will give evidence after you. They may be witnesses who saw or heard the incident or they may be ‘character witnesses.’ If the defendant has no previous convictions then he may bring witnesses to court to give evidence as to his character to show the court that he or she is not the type of person who would commit the offence. This is a very important part of the defence of anyone with no previous convictions. (After calling all the witnesses, the defence brief will then address the bench (the judges) in the form of ‘a closing speech.’ In this speech he or she will highlight all the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, summarise the defendant’s case and build an argument to persuade the court that their client is not guilty.
After hearing from the defence brief, the judge or judges will then retire to consider their verdict.
Sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court
There are a number of sentences that can be imposed in the Magistrates’ Court. We have listed some of the more common types below.
Committal to the Crown Court for Sentence
If the defendant indicates a guilty plea, pleads guilty or is found guilty of an offence that could have been heard in the Crown Court (an either way offence) the Magistrates can commit (this means send) the case to Crown Court for sentence if they feel they do not have power to sentence the offence for long enough (given that the maximum for one offence in the Magistrates is 6 months).
Custodial or Prison Sentence
A custodial sentence is a prison sentence. If the Magistrates are considering a prison sentence they will normally request that a report be prepared about you to assist them in making their decision. Normally the case is adjourned to another date for the report to be prepared. The length of the adjournment will be dependant on how quickly the report can be prepared. The reports do not have to be in writing.
The minimum custodial sentence is five days. The maximum sentence is 6 months for one offence. However, there is a power to impose 12 months if you are being sentenced for two or more offences.
If the Magistrates impose a term of imprisonment between 14 days and six months they may suspend the sentence for between 6 months and two years (“the operational period”). When a sentence is suspended the Magistrates must impose one or more requirements to be undertaken by you in the community. These requirements are similar to Community Orders . If you fail to comply with the requirements or commit another offence during the relevant period, the Magistrates can activate the suspended sentence.This means you will have to go to prison for the length of time said at your sentencing day.
Community Orders are sentences within the community designed either to punish, to rehabilitate or to ensure reparation. Community Orders can require you to do unpaid work, take treatment for drugs, alcohol, or be supervised by the Probation Service, among other requirements.
The Magistrates can impose a fine. The size of the fine will depend on the seriousness of the offence to be sentenced and an individual’s ability to pay.
The Magistrates must consider making an order for compensation in any case where there has been personal injury, loss or damage as a result of the offence that is being sentenced.
If the Magistrates feel having regard to the nature of the offence and taking into account your character it is not appropriate not to impose a punishment they can order either an absolute or a conditional discharge. If an absolute discharge is imposed that is the end of the matter. If they order a conditional discharge then no punishment will be imposed if the defendant does not commit another offence during the period of the discharge. However , if you were to commit an offence within that time then you would be re-sentenced for the original offence.
Further orders the court can make
The court can make further orders where appropriate. These include anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), confiscation orders, disqualifications from the ownership of animals, disqualifications from driving. football banning orders, forfeiture and destruction of drugs. restraining orders or sexual offence prevention orders, among others.
There is an automatic right to appeal against a sentence or conviction from the Magistrates’ Court, however, the appeal must be lodged within 21 days of being sentenced.