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What happens at court?

What happens at court?

What is the court process?

All criminal cases begin at a magistrates’ court. Depending on the crime you have been charged with, your case will either:

  • start and finish in a magistrates' court
  • start in a magistrates' court but finish in a ‘higher’ court - normally the Crown Court

The magistrates’ court is not allowed to deal with more serious offences. In these cases, you will be bailed or remanded in custody by the magistrates’ court, and your case will be sent to the Crown Court immediately.

More serious types of cases are known as ‘indictable offences’ (eg robbery, murder, conspiracy, burglary with violence). You will have one appearance in the magistrates’ court to hear any bail application and will then transfer straight to the Crown Court. 

The magistrates’ courts that our team of experts attend on a daily basis are Uxbridge, Brent, Ealing, Slough,Maidenhead, High Wycombe, Staines, Feltham, and Richmond.

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What are the differences between the types of court?

Magistrates’ Court

Lay magistrates, or district judges (who are former lawyers), hear cases in a magistrates’ court. Magistrates are people from the community who have undergone basic legal training on a voluntary basis. They are guided by the Court Clerk, who is a qualified lawyer. Two or three magistrates must be in court at any one time. In the magistrates' court, there are no juries.

Crown Court

The Crown Court is more formal than magistrates’ courts - for example, the judge wears a gown and wig. The court is open to the public. The Crown Court includes a jury of 12 members of the public who decide whether you’re guilty or not guilty.

Then, if you’re found guilty, a judge decides what sentence you are given. The jury listens to the prosecution and defence cases, evaluates the evidence presented, and makes a decision in accordance with the rules of law and the guidance they receive from the judge.

A jury will first be told that they have to find the defendant guilty or not guilty by unanimous vote (when everyone is in agreement). If the jury cannot come to a unanimous verdict, the judge might tell them that a majority verdict will do, where 10 of the 12 members of the jury in agreement. If no verdict can still be reached, a re-trial may be ordered.

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What types of cases are dealt with at a magistrates’ court?

Offences such as motoring offences, shoplifting and minor public order offences (known as ‘summary offences’) are dealt with only by magistrates’ courts. The maximum punishment for a single summary offence is six months in prison, and/or a fine of up to £5,000, although if you’re found guilty of more than one summary offence, you could get a prison sentence of up to 12 months.

Magistrates’ courts can also deal with more serious crimes, or ‘either way offences’ (meaning those that could be dealt with by either a magistrates’ court or a Crown Court). Examples of these crimes are drugs offences, burglary or handling stolen goods. The maximum punishment in a magistrates’ court for an either way offence is six months in prison, and/or a fine of up to £5,000. Again, if you’re found guilty of more than one summary offence, you could get a prison sentence of up to 12 months.

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What happens if I plead guilty to an ‘either way’ offence at a magistrates’ court?

If you plead guilty, the court decides if it has the power to sentence you. If the punishment you deserve is more than the magistrates’ court can give, your case will be sent to the Crown Court. You won’t have a new trial at the Crown Court – their job is just to decide your sentence.

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What happens if I plead not guilty to an ‘either way’ offence at a magistrates’ court?

The court has to decide whether it feels it can deal with your case, or will send the case to the Crown Court for trial.

They will give you the choice of being tried there, or choosing to be tried in the Crown Court. You should not make this decision without taking legal advice.

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What happens during a hearing at the magistrates’ court?

The format of a hearing is:

1. You plead guilty or not guilty

The court legal adviser reads out the offence you have been charged with and you are asked if you want to plead guilty or not guilty.

If you plead guilty at this stage, there’s no hearing and you are convicted and sentenced by the court. You may get a less severe sentence than if you plead not guilty but are later convicted.

If there is only a short time between your being charged and going to court, the court may adjourn (postpone) your hearing so that everyone involved case can prepare properly.

2. The prosecution ‘put their case’ against you

If you plead not guilty the prosecution lawyer states why they think you committed the crime. They present evidence – which may include calling witnesses to the crime. The prosecution must prove the following before you can be found guilty:

  • that you did something illegal, that you meant it, and that you committed the offence intentionally or recklessly.
  • that you knew what you did was wrong, or that you knew you were doing it.

3. You defend your case

Your solicitor challenges what the prosecution say and you can give your own evidence on oath (when you must ‘swear’ to tell the truth).

4. The court makes its decision

The magistrates (or judge) will decide whether you’re guilty or not guilty of the crime. If you’re found not guilty, you are ‘acquitted’, and free to leave.

If you’re found guilty, you will be sentenced by the court. You solicitor’s job is now to try to keep your sentence to a (called ‘mitigation’), by describing your personal circumstances if these can explain why you committed the crime.

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How am I sentenced?

The court could decide your sentence immediately, or at a later date if it decides it needs more information about you (called a ‘pre-sentence report’). For example, if you have a mental health condition, the judge might want medical information about you from your doctor before making a decision.

There’s also a limit on the level of sentence a magistrates’ court can give. If the sentence you deserve is more than the court can give your case is sent to the Crown Court. A Crown Court judge will then decide what your sentence is.

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What happens to me if I have to wait for sentencing?

If the magistrates’ court needs more time (or the Crown Court needs to decide your sentence), you will either return home on ‘court bail’ until sentencing, or be remanded in custody.

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What happens at a Crown Court trial?

The format of a Crown Court trial is:

1. You say whether you’re pleading guilty or not guilty

The court clerk reads out the offence you have been charged with. You are then asked if you want to plead guilty or not guilty.

If you plead guilty at this stage, there’s no trial and you are convicted and sentenced by the court. You may get a less severe sentence than if you plead not guilty but are later convicted.

2. The jury is 'sworn in'

The jury members are ‘sworn in’. This means they promise to listen carefully to the case so that they can give a fair verdict.

3. The prosecution ‘put their case’ against you to the jury

If you plead not guilty, the prosecution lawyer states why they think you committed the crime.

They present evidence – which may include calling witnesses to the crime. The prosecution must prove the following before you can be found guilty:

  • that you did something illegal, that you meant it, and that you committed the offence intentionally or recklessly.
  • that you knew what you did was wrong, or that you knew you were doing it.

4. You defend your case

Your solicitor argues against what the prosecution say and you give your own evidence on oath (when you must ‘swear’ to tell the truth).

5. The jury makes its decision

At the end of the case, one member of the jury (the foreman) tells the court the jury's decision. This will be whether they think you are guilty or not guilty.

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Contact our criminal defence experts today

Call us now in complete confidence on 0330 999 4999 for immediate emergency representation. You can also contact us free via Whatsapp on 07899 953415.

Joanne Gibbons

Partner
01895 207866
joanne.gibbons@ibblaw.co.uk