Virtually all criminal court cases start in a magistrates’ court, and more than 90 per cent will be completed there.
The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, either for sentencing after the defendant has been found guilty in a magistrates’ court, or for full trial with a judge and jury.
Magistrates deal with three kinds of cases:
- Summary offences. These are less serious cases, such as motoring offences and minor assaults, where the defendant is not usually entitled to trial by jury. They are generally disposed of in magistrates’ courts.
- Either-way offences. As the name implies, these can be dealt with either by magistrates or before a judge and jury at the Crown Court. Such offences include theft and handling stolen goods. A defendant can insist on their right to trial in the Crown Court. Magistrates can also decide that a case is so serious that it should be dealt with in the Crown Court – which can impose tougher sentences if the defendant is found guilty.
- Indictable-only offences, such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. These must be heard at a Crown Court.
If the case is indictable-only, the magistrates’ court will generally decide whether to grant bail, consider other legal issues such as reporting restrictions, and then pass the case on to the Crown Court.
If the case is to be dealt within a magistrates’ court, the defendant(s) are asked to enter a plea. If they plead guilty or are later found to be guilty, the magistrates can impose a sentence, generally of up to six months’ imprisonment for a single offence (12 months in total), or a fine, generally of up to £5,000. If found not guilty (‘acquitted’), defendants are judged innocent in the eyes of the law and will be free to go – provided there are no other cases against them outstanding.
Cases are either heard by two or three magistrates or by one district judge.
Who are magistrates?
Justices of the Peace, as they are also known, are local people who volunteer their services. They do not require formal legal qualifications, but will have undertaken a training programme, including court and prison visits, to develop the necessary skills. They are given legal and procedural advice by qualified clerks.
District judges are legally qualified, paid, full-time professionals and are usually based in the larger cities. They normally hear the more complex or sensitive cases.
There are approximately 23,000 magistrates, 140 district judges and 170 deputy district judges operating in the roughly 330 magistrates’ courts throughout England and Wales.
Because magistrates do not need to have legal qualifications, they are advised in court on matters of law, practice and procedure. This advice is provided by Justices' Clerks and Assistant Justices' Clerks.
Magistrates in the criminal court
Over 95 per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates' court.
Magistrates hear less serious criminal cases including motoring offences, commit to higher courts serious cases such as rape and murder, consider bail applications, deal with fine enforcement and grant search warrant and right of entry applications. They may also consider cases where people have not paid their council tax, their vehicle excise licence or TV licences.
All magistrates sit in adult criminal courts as panels of three, mixed in gender, age, ethnicity etc whenever possible to bring a broad experience of life to the bench. All three have equal decision-making powers but only one, the chairman will speak in court and preside over the proceedings. The two magistrates sitting either side are referred to as wingers.
Most of the cases are brought to court by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) but there are other prosecution agencies such as RSPCA, Environment Agency, Department of Work and Pensions, English Nature etc.
Where a defendant pleads not guilty a trial will be held where the magistrates listen to, and sometimes see, evidence presented by both the prosecution and defence, decide on agreed facts and facts in dispute and consider whether the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Having found someone guilty or when someone has pleaded, the magistrates proceed to sentence using a structured decision making process and sentencing guidelines which set out the expected penalty for typical offences. They will also take note of case law and any practice directions from the higher courts and are advised in court by a legally qualified adviser.
For a single criminal offence committed by an adult, a magistrate's sentencing powers include the imposition of fines, Community Payback orders, probation orders or a period of not more than six months in custody (a total of 12 months for multiple offences). Magistrates may also sit in the Crown Court with a judge to hear appeals from magistrates' courts against conviction or sentence and proceedings on committal to the Crown Court for sentence.
Magistrates in the Youth Courts
Magistrates are specially trained to sit in youth courts, where procedures are slightly more informal than in adult criminal courts - for example, magistrates will deliberately talk directly to young defendants, rather than always through their legal representative.
In criminal cases the youth court can deal with all offences committed by a juvenile (someone under 18 years old) except homicide, which has to be dealt with in a higher court. Sentences are quite different in that they specifically address the needs of young offenders. Young defendants should always be accompanied by a responsible adult when they appear in court unless they are mature enough to be considered independent of their parents.
Magistrates - Civil
Although most magistrates deal with criminal work, they also decide many civil matters, particularly in relation to family work. Magistrates' civil roles include dealing with cases such as non-payment of council tax.
Magistrates in Family Proceedings Courts
Magistrates undergo extensive training before they sit in Family Proceedings Courts where procedures are very different from the criminal courts; the court setting is much more informal and ideally takes place with parties seated around a large table. Cases – which can be both public and private - can be very emotional and upsetting for both parties.
There is usually a fair amount of reading as both parties file statements and reports.
Magistrates always provide written reasons and can be assisted with extra information provided by a childrens' guardian, usually a specialised social worker.
Who sits in a Magistrates' court
District judges (Magistrates' courts)
District judges (magistrates' courts) are full-time members of the judiciary who hear cases in magistrates' courts. They usually deal with the longer and more complex matters coming before the magistrates' courts.
Magistrates are trained, unpaid members of their local community, who work part-time and deal with less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences.
If you are a victim of crime, or a witness in a case, you can contact Victim Support for information and a chance to look around the court.