For those new to the criminal justice system, the structure and proceedings at court can be opaque and intimidating. Our team, who are experienced in dealing with matters at all levels of the court structure, can guide you through the process.
Below is a brief guide to the court system.
Types of offences
In the law of England and Wales, offences are categorised according to their seriousness. They are labelled as either ‘summary only’, ‘either way’, or ‘indictable only’ offences.
The less serious offences, which can only be heard in the Magistrates’ Court (the lowest criminal court) are summary only offences. Examples of this type of offence include driving with excess alcohol in the blood, or common assault.
Either way offences are ones where the seriousness of the offence and, therefore, which court should deal with it, can vary according to the circumstances. Examples of either way offences include theft, fraud and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. For these offences, the Magistrates’ Court will first decide whether or not it is willing to hear the case in its entirety. This will be on the basis of both the complexity of the case and the likely appropriate sentence. If the Magistrates’ Court decides that they can hear a case, then the defendant can decide whether the case will be heard in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. If the Magistrates’ Court declines to deal with the matter however, then the case will have to be heard in the Crown Court.
Indictable only offences are ones that can only be dealt with in the Crown Court because they are so serious. Neither the defendant nor the Magistrates’ Court has any choice in the matter. Indictable only offences include murder, rape and blackmail.
The Youth Court can deal with summary, either way, and indictable offences where the defendant is under 18 years old at the time of the first court hearing.
Should you appear in court as a defendant, the choice (where available) of venue where your case is to be heard is an important one. Your solicitor will advise you, taking into account all your circumstances and the facts of your case.
The Magistrates’ Court
All adult cases start in the Magistrates’ Court. Indictable only cases will simply have an administrative hearing here before the case is transferred to the Crown Court.
The Magistrates’ Court deals with either summary only or either way offences. The court’s sentencing powers are generally limited to six months for each offence with the power to impose up to a total of 12 months’ imprisonment. The magistrates can, however, impose unlimited fines.
Decisions in the Magistrates’ Court are made either by a District Judge or up to three magistrates who will hear a case with the assistance of a legal adviser. Magistrates are members of the local community who are trained to dispense justice. The legal adviser will be legally trained and provides the magistrates with guidance on the law. District Judges (full time judges) or Deputy District Judges (part-time judges who are also practising lawyers) are themselves legally qualified.
Magistrates, and judges at every level in the court system, are bound by established legal principles, the Criminal Procedure Rules and published Sentencing Guidelines.
The Youth Court
The Youth Court is usually housed in a private area of the Magistrates’ Court, to limit access to the court. Unlike adult hearings in the Magistrates’ Court, Youth Court hearings are not held in public. The court is staffed in the same way as the Magistrates’ Court but the magistrates, judges and legal advisers have undertaken additional training in order to deal with the specific issues that arise for young people in the criminal justice system.
The aim of the Youth Court is to prevent young people from reoffending. It is less formal than the Magistrates’ Court, and designed to enable young people to engage in the court process more easily.
The Youth Court can deal with offences in any category of seriousness. However, cases can be sent from the Youth Court to the Crown Court if they concern offences that are considered ‘grave’, or where the Youth Court believes that there is a real possibility that the sentence likely to be imposed on conviction is more than two years in custody.
The Crown Court
The Crown Court is staffed by judges. A part–time judge (who is also a practising lawyer) is called a Recorder. Trials are heard by a judge and jury. The judge determines the principles of law. The jury decide on guilt or innocence, having heard the facts of the case and received guidance on the law from the judge. If a defendant is convicted in the Crown Court, the judge decides what sentence should be imposed.
Appeals against decisions in the Magistrates’ Court are generally heard in the Crown Court. Any appeal must be lodged within 21 days of the date of sentence.
Appeals against sentence or conviction in the Crown Court are heard in the Court of Appeal. The opportunities for appealing against Crown Court decisions are more restricted and you will need a solicitor to assist you. Any appeal from the Crown Court must be lodged within 28 days of the decision you are appealing.
Appeals submitted outside of the time limits will only be considered if you successfully apply for an extension of time.
On hearing an appeal, the Court of Appeal can give permission for proceedings to go to the Supreme Court if there is an arguable point of law which is of public importance. Matters such as this however are quite rare.
How we can help you
If you find yourself charged with an offence and facing the prospect of a court appearance, or need representation or guidance in relation to court proceedings which are already in motion, please contact a member of our criminal litigation team. Wherever you are in the court system, we will be able to advise you.
Partner and Head of Department
Professional Support Lawyer
Michael Caplan QC
Senior Associate (Barrister)
Senior Associate (Barrister)
"They stand out because of their ability to stop a case before it gets started. Their commitment, preparation and tenacity set them apart. They are a strong firm. Their various departments work in harmony and deliver the same high-quality work."
Chambers UK, 2019
"They pick up some fantastic work, they have some fantastic clients and they have a skill of trying to get rid of matters before they go too far."
Chambers High Net Worth Guide 2018
"The crime team is first-rate. They are dedicated, hard-working and tireless in their preparation of cases."
Chambers UK, 2017