In the second part of our series on criminal proceedings, we examine the differences between proceedings in the Crown Court and the Magistrates’ Court. Read part one here.
I’m pleading not guilty to an either way offence, should I chose a trial in the Crown Court or stay in the Magistrates’ Court?
Where you have been charged with an offence and wish to plead not guilty, your case will go to a trial. If you are charged with an either way offence, it is possible your trial may take place in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Courts. Where the Magistrates decide that the offence is so serious that the maximum sentence they can pass of 6 months’ imprisonment would be insufficient, the case will be sent to the Crown Court for trial and you will have no say in the matter. However, where the Magistrates decide that their sentencing powers are sufficient (that the relevant offence would be dealt with by a sentence of less than 6 months imprisonment) they can retain the case. In those circumstances you will still have a choice as to whether you stay and have a trial in the Magistrates’ Court (the lower court), or elect to have a trial by jury in the Crown Court. This process is known as electing Crown Court trial.
How do I decide?
The best advice will always be to seek professional legal advice from a qualified practitioner. They can discuss the procedure with you and advise you what would be best in your individual case. There are a number of factors to consider:
1. Who is judging you?
In the lower Court, the Magistrates are the judges of both law and fact. They will hear the evidence, make decisions on the law such as admissibility of specific evidence, and make a decision at the end of your trial as to whether they believe you are guilty or not guilty.
One reason for choosing to stay in the Magistrates’ Court is that the panel of Magistrates is designed to serve as a representative sample of the diverse population, ordinary people who have an understanding of ordinary life. They are guided by a legal advisor who ensures they follow the correct procedures.
As Magistrates are judges of both the law and facts, it is often the case that they will have to see and discuss a piece of evidence over which there are arguments concerning admissibility (whether the evidence is valid). In the event that a piece of evidence is ruled inadmissible, the Magistrates may direct themselves to ignore that evidence, but in practice, it is difficulty to ‘un-see’ something, and this causes concerns for many Defendants. In the Crown Courts, a trial will have a number of preliminary hearings to ensure that the case is ready for trial when the time comes. Matters of admissibility are typically ironed out in advance, and even whether they arise in the trial, it is the judge who makes a decision on whether evidence should go before a jury. If evidence is rule inadmissible, the jury will never see or know of it.
2. Acquittal rates and sentencing powers
The Crown Courts have a much higher rate of Defendants being found Not Guilty than in the Magistrates’ Court. However, while the chances of being acquitted are higher, the chance of receiving a higher sentence on conviction is also much higher. The maximum sentence that can be passed in the Magistrates’ Court for a single offence is 6 months, or a maximum aggregate 12 months for more than one offence, whereas the Crown Courts have greater sentencing powers that can amount to years in prison. An example is theft, tried summarily by Magistrates receives a maximum of 6 months, but tried on indictment in the Crown Court has a maximum of 7 years. Of course, it is unlikely that the maximum sentence in the Crown Court will be passed on a matter that the Magistrates’ Court initially retained jurisdiction on, however, the Magistrates do not have the benefit of having sat through a trial and hearing all the evidence at the time they make the decision on whether to retain jurisdiction.
Note also that while it is the jury who decide whether a Defendant is guilty or not guilty of an offence in the Crown Courts, it is the judge who will pass sentence. The jury will not have regard to any likely sentence that may be passed when reaching their verdicts.
3. The Criminal Standard of Proof
Briefly, this is the standard to which the Prosecution must make the judges of fact (either the Magistrates or the jury) sure of the Defendant’s guilt. This is the same standard regardless of whether you are in the Magistrates’ or the Crown Courts. It is arguably easier to convince a panel of 12 randomly selected people of your innocence, than three lay magistrates who have typically sat on trials before.
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. To get the best help and advice, contact our clerks via our online contact form or call 01273 810011.
Kayleigh McChambell | Crime