YOU'VE BEEN CHARGED OR SUMMONED TO APPEAR AT THE
WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT.
A criminal case can start in one of two ways;
The first is by a court summons, which is a letter that is sent to your home address.
The second way is that you have been charged with an offence at the police station. If it is for a particularly serious matter, you might appear in custody overnight at the Court, or alternatively, after charge, you have been bailed to attend Court.
What type of offences are dealt with at the Magistrates Court?
The first category of offence is called a ‘summary only offence’ and these offences can only be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court. These are usually the most minor of offences. Examples of summary offences include common assault and most driving offences.
The second category of offences are called ‘either way’ offences. These offences include medium-level seriousness cases like theft, burglary and ABH assault (actual bodily harm). These ‘either way’ offences can also be dealt with in the Crown Court.
The third category of offences are 'indictable' only. These are the most serious and are sent straight to the Crown Court. Examples include murder, robbery, most sexual offences and conspiracy.
What happens at the first hearing in the Magistrates’ Court?
At the first hearing, the court clerk will ask you to confirm your name and address. What happens next depends on the type of offence that you are facing.
Summary only offences:
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 plead 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 your 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.
Either way offences
If you are facing an ‘either way’ offence, the court will ask you to say what your plea is.
You can say guilty, not guilty, or refuse to say a plea at this time.
If you plead guilty, the court will hear from the prosecution and your lawyer to decide whether they can sentence you. 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 decide to withold a plea, the court will hear the opinions of the prosecutor and your solicitor as to where the trial should take place (the Crown Court or Magistrates Court ).
At this stage the court has two options; to decline jurisdiction 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 accept jurisdiction, you will then be asked where you would like the case to be heard; either in the Magistrates Court or in the Crown Court.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having a trial in the Crown Court or Magistrates Court and you should always seek the advice of your solicitor 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.
Magistrates Court Trial
The trial starts with the prosecution summarising the case against 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 your solicitor. This is the dramatic and sometimes aggressive questioning that people associate with witness evidence in court. Your solicitor will also put your case to the witness in cross examination.
After the prosecution have called all their witnesses, it is then your lawyer’s turn to put your case. It may be that having heard all the evidence in the case, your lawyer believes that the prosecution have not brought enough evidence to court to show that the offence took place. If this is the case, your lawyer 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 defence 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 you have no previous convictions then you may bring witnesses to court to give evidence as to his character to show the court that you are not the type of person who would commit the offence.
After calling all the witnesses, your lawyer 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 your case and build an argument to persuade the court that you are not guilty.
After hearing from your lawyer, the judge or judges will then retire to consider their verdict.
Indictable only offences:
As explained above, these are the most serious of offence and are 'sent' straight to the Crown Court for trial.
Sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court
There are a number of sentences that can be imposed in the Magistrates’ Court:
Committal to the Crown Court for Sentence
If you indicate a guilty plea, plead guilty or are 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).
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 the accused is 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 (see below for more detail). If you fail to comply with the requirements or commits another offence during the relevant period, the Magistrates can activate the suspended sentence.
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 your character, that it is 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 providing you do not commit another offence during the period of the discharge. A conditional discharge can be for up to three years.
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.