Criminal proceedings part one: The Court system

Criminal law proceedings can be complex and it is sometimes difficult to know at which stage you might need the services of a legal professional. We have put together a two part series explaining some key aspects of criminal proceedings and how a barrister can help and support you.

What is the Magistrates’ Court?

The Magistrates’ Court is the lowest tier of criminal court in the UK. The ‘judges’ are typically a panel of three Magistrates (also called ‘Justices of the Peace’) who deliberately have no legal qualifications. They are assisted by their court legal advisor. The maximum sentence that can be passed for one offence in the Magistrates’ Court is 6 months, though some offences carry a lesser maximum. In the Magistrates’ Court, it is the Magistrates that hear the evidence and reach a decision in your case.

What is the Crown Court?

The Crown Court is the next highest tier criminal court, typically dealing with much more serious offences attracting prison sentences ranging from 6 months to life imprisonment. Hearings are generally conducted by a single Crown Court Judge who has exceptional legal experience. In the Crown Court, the function of the judge is, amongst other things, to ensure the trial is fair and to rule on matters of law involved. Matters of fact, however, such as deciding whether someone is guilty or not guilty at the end of a trial, are determined by a jury panel of 12 randomly selected members of the public.

Which Court Do I Go To?

Generally speaking, the type of Court is dependent on a number of factors, the most prominent being the type of offence with which you are charged. The first oral hearing (in a court room before a ‘judge’) will always be in the Magistrates’ Court. It is at this stage that a decision is taken as to which court will deal with the rest of the proceedings. If the relevant offence is one which is likely to attract a sentence of more than 6 months, it will be transferred up to the Crown Court for trial (plea of Not Guilty) or sentence (either where there has been a plea of Guilty, or a trial has taken place in the Magistrates’ Court, you have been found guilty and the Magistrates are satisfied that the type of sentence that should be passed is more than 6 months’).

Types of offence

There are three types of offence category: summary only, indictable only, or either-way:

  • Summary Only – These are the least serious matters that can only appear in the Magistrates’ Court*. Matters charged summarily include offences such as minor driving offences and common assault.
  • Indictable Only – These are more serious matters which carry a much higher penalty. As such, they may only be dealt with in the Crown Courts. Offences such as murder or manslaughter are indictable only and carry a maximum life sentence.
  • Either-Way – These are offences which, within themselves, range in severity, and therefore also vary in the sentence that may be imposed. The severity of the offence is determined on the unique facts of each case, and so it is possible that lower end offences will remain in the Magistrates’ Court where the correct sentence would be one of 6 months or less, whereas a more serious version of that offence, attracting a sentence of more than 6 months, will go up to the Crown Courts where the sentencing powers are wider. Theft is an example of an either-way offence, which can attract a maximum 6 months in the Magistrates’ Court, or a maximum 7 years in the Crown Court. Alternately, even where the Magistrates are satisfied they can retain jurisdiction of an either-way case, it is possible for the defendant to elect a jury trial in the Crown Courts. See Part Two: Will my case go to the Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court?

*There are limited circumstances where a summary only matter may be dealt with in the Crown Courts if it can be attached to an indictable or either way offence that is being sent to the Crown (Section 40, Criminal Justice Act 1998).

I have been charged with an offence. What should I do?

It is essential in most cases to obtain legal advice when you are first charged. If you have been charged with an offence and seek specialist advice and representation, our dedicated team of skilled criminal practitioners will be able to assist.

One of our barristers can provide you with exceptional advice on your specific case, what will happen, how to proceed, and what the likely outcome would be. Having professional legal representation at each stage of the process will ensure your best case is put forward and will provide you with the highest chance of securing the best outcome.

To get the best help and advice, contact our clerks via our online contact form or call us on 01273 810011.

Kayleigh McChambell  | Crime

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