All criminal law cases have to start in the Magistrates Court. Each region has its own local Magistrates Court and generally speaking any court proceedings will be commenced in the Magistrates Court which covers the area where the alleged offence or incident occurred.
The Magistrates Court is the lower level of the court system and generally deals with less serious offences such as motoring offences, low value thefts and low level assaults. All cases no matter how serious initially have to start out in the Magistrates court with some cases then going on to be completed in the Crown Court.
Cases in the Magistrates Court are decided either by Lay Magistrates or District Judges. They decide on whether the prosecution have proven that someone is guilty of an offence during trial, what sentence someone should receive when they are guilty and any other matters which need to be decided about the running of a court case. There is no jury in the Magistrates Court.
When dealing with an adult defendant (aged 18 years and older) the magistrates court can impose up to 6 months imprisonment for a single offence or up to a 12 month prison sentence for two or more "either way offences" (see below). Adult cases are dealt with in a court open to the public.
For a juvenile (17 years old and below) they must appear in a Youth Court. This means the court room is closed to the public. The layout of the room and the way the hearings are conducted are designed to be less intimidating than a normal adult magistrates court room. In the case of a juvenile defendant the courts have maximum powers (depending upon the age of the juvenile) of imposing a prison sentence called a Detention and Training Order for a length of up to 2 years. The law regarding juveniles and particularly the sentences they can receive is different than for adults and can be complicated. We advise any young person appearing before the court to obtain legal advice.
What is the difference between Lay Magistrates and District Judges?
Lay Magistrates are trained part time volunteers from the community. They must sit as either two or three together and make decisions between themselves. They are advised on the law and procedure by the Court Legal Adviser who is a paid lawyer.
District Judges who are qualified lawyers paid to act in that role by the Government. They sit alone in court but still have a Court Legal Adviser present to assist them if necessary.
How is it decided which cases stay in the Magistrates Court and which cases go to the Crown Court?
In the case of an adult there are three categories which all criminal offences fall within. Which category the charges fall into determines whether a case should stay in the magistrates court or be transferred to the Crown Court to deal with:
- Summary Only Offences. This category generally contains the less serious types of offences including most motoring offences, low level assaults. low level public order offences etc. This type of offence must generally stay in the magistrates court to be dealt with.
- Either Way Offences. This category generally contains offences of mid level seriousness including the most serious kinds of assaults, theft, fraud etc. An offence of this type could be directed to go to the Crown Court for Trial or sentence if the court decides that it is too serious for the magistrates court to deal with. Alternatively if the magistrates indicate the case could be dealt with in the magistrates court a defendant is then given the choice of having their trial in the magistrates court or requesting that they have a trial by jury in the Crown Court.
- Indictable Only Offences. This category contains some of the most serious offences such as murder, manslaughter and rape. Any offence of this type must be sent straight to the Crown Court to be dealt with irrespective of whether the defendant is pleading Guilty or Not Guilty.
What will happen at the first court hearing when I attend at the Magistrates Court?
The layout and size of magistrates courts across England and Wales can vary a great deal but most have more than one court room and some have twenty or more court rooms over different floors. Therefore the first task will be to locate which court room to go to from the reception area. There will either be a list of defendants names and court rooms or a manned reception desk to assist with this.
On weekdays a magistrates court will usually have a morning session when the court starts to hear cases at 10am and an afternoon session when the court starts to hear cases from 2pm.
For the first hearing of a case there will usually be several or more cases all listed to start at 10am in the same court room. The court will then normally call on cases as and when the defendants and solicitors are ready.
If the defendant has arranged for legal representation their solicitor will usually meet them outside their allotted court room.
When a defendant goes into the court room for their case to be heard they will be asked to confirm their personal details such as their name, address and date of birth. If the defendant is an adult the rest of the hearing then depends upon the category of offences the defendant is facing:
Summary Only offences. The court read out each charge and ask the defendant to confirm whether they are pleading Guilty or Not Guilty to each one. Where a Guilty plea is entered then court will hear about the details of any offences and then listen to any thing said by either the defendant or a defence solicitor on their behalf. As a defence solicitor will have experience of addressing the court they will be able to ensure all the correct points are raised with the magistrates about their client and why the offence happened in the hope a achieving the best sentence for the defendant.
If a plea of Not Guilty is entered and the Prosecution intend to carry on with the charge then a Trial must take place in the Magistrates Court to see whether the Prosecution can prove their case against the defendant or not. The Trial does not take place at the first hearing but a date is then arranged in the future when the trial will be heard. This allows both the prosecution and defence time to arrange for their witnesses to come to court on the Trial date.
Either Way offences: The court read out each either way charge and the defendant has three options for each charge, namely, to plead Not Guilty, to plead Guilty or to say they are not at that stage going to give an indication of what plea they will enter (this is called No Indication).
If only Guilty pleas are entered the court then follow the same process as they would with a summary only offence but the main difference is that they could decide to commit the to case to be sentenced by the Crown Court at a later date if the offence are too serious and may require greater powers of punishment than the magsiatrates court can impose.are told of the allegations made against the defendant.
Where a plea of Not Guilty or No Indication is given the prosecution outline the case against the defendant. The court at this point do not need to decide whether the allegations are true but consider what level of sentence would be imposed if they were true and the defendant found Guilty. If the court consider the case is too serious then they can order that the case be committed to the Crown Court for Trial and case will then be adjourned to give the prosecution enough time to prepare a bundle of papers containing the evidence they intend to rely upon at Trial (these are called committal papers).
If the court feel the offences would attract of sentence within their powers they will confirm this and the defendant then is offered a choice; they can elect for their trial to take place at before a jury in the Crown Court or choose to have their trial in the magistrates court. If a Crown Court trial is chosen the an adjournment will take place to allow for the committal papers to be prepared. If a magistrates court trial is chosen then a trial date is arranged as it would be for a summary only offence.
There can be potential advantages and disadvantages to choosing a trial in either the Magistrates or Crown Court and we strongly advise anyone to seek specialise legal advice before making such a decision.
Indictable Only offences. The court will read out the charges and confirm that there is one or more indictable only offence. The defendant is not then required to make a formal plea to the charge and a date for the first Crown Court appearance is then set.
For a youth a case will tend to stay in the magistrates court unless the court decide that the offences would merit a sentence of more than two years if proven.
In court this word is used to describe the punishment imposed upon someone for an offence they are found guilty of. This punishment could be a fine, a sentence based within the community, a prison sentence or some other kind of punishment.
In order to decide upon the appropriate sentence the lay magistrates or District judge will take into account the facts of offence, the defendants previous history and any reasons why the offence occurred. They will also follow guidance contained within the Magistrates Court Sentencing Guidelines which cover the more commonly committed offences.
Where a community based sentence or a prison sentence is being considered the Probation service will normally be asked by the court to interview the defendant and present a report (often called a Pre Sentence Report) to court to help them decide what the right sentence should be.
As part of a sentence the court can order a defendant to pay prosecutions costs or compensation to any victims in the case.
The court can also make a variety of Orders with some examples being disqualification from driving, imposing driving licence penalty points, forfeiture and destruction of items, anti social behaviour orders and Football Banning Orders.
This article is a brief guide only and is not designed to provide advice for a specific case. Please contact us for expert advice on any matter you may have in the magistrates court.