What offences are dealt with in the Magistrates Court?
There are two categories of offences that can be dealt with in 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 that can be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court 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 if the Magistrates feel the case is too serious to deal with.
What happens at the first hearing in the Magistrates’ Court?
At the first hearing, the court clerk will ask the accused to confirm their name and address. What happens next depends on the type of offence that the individual is facing:
If the individual is facing a summary only offence the clerk will read out the charge and ask whether he/she pleads guilty or not guilty.
If he/she pleads 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.
The accused person may also require time to arrange for their witnesses to come to court and to prepare their case for trial.
If the individual pleads guilty, then the court will usually give the sentence (whether it is a fine, or a more serious sentence) the same day.
If a person is facing an ‘either way
’ offence, the court will ask him or her to say what he or she pleads.
The individual can say Guilty, Not Guilty or No Indication.
If he or she says guilty, the court will hear from the prosecution and the defence lawyer and decide whether they can sentence the individual.
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 the accused person has said he or she is not guilty or decided not to say what their plea is, the court will hear the opinions of the prosecutor and the criminal defence solicitor as to where the trial should take place (the Crown Court or Magistrates Court).
At this stage the court has two options; to refuse the case 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 deal with the case, the accused person will then be asked where they would like the case to be heard; either in the Magistrates Court or in the Crown Court.
This means that the defendant (the accused person) can always decide for an ‘either way’ offence to be dealt with in the Crown Court if they wish.
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 lay judges and district judges are cynical in their approach to the evidence due to the number of trials that they hear.
Magistrates Court Guide to Trial Procedure
The trial starts with the prosecution summarising the case against the defendant.
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 but if the statements are disputed by the defence then the witness must give evidence in person in court.
The witnesses may then be ‘cross examined’ about their evidence by the criminal defence solicitor.
This is the dramatic and sometimes aggressive questioning that people associate with witness evidence in court. The criminal defence solicitor will also put the defendant’s case to the witness in cross examination.
After the prosecution have called all their witnesses, they will say that their case is closed.
It is then the defence lawyer’s turn to put the defendant’s case.
Should the defence feel that the prosecution’s evidence is weak the defence lawyer may argue that ‘there is no case to answer’.
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.
The defendant is the first person to give evidence for the defence case. Any defence witnesses will give evidence after him/her.
They may be witnesses who saw or heard the incident or they may be ‘character witnesses’.
If the defendant has no previous convictions then he may bring witnesses to court to give evidence as to his character to show the court that he or she is not the type of person who would commit the offence.
This is a very important part of the defence of anyone with no previous convictions
After calling all the witnesses, the defence lawyer will then address the bench (the judges) in the form of ‘a closing speech’.
In this speech the defence will highlight all the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, summarise the defendant’s case and put forward an argument to persuade the court that their client is not guilty.
After hearing from the defence lawyer, the judge or magistrates will then retire to consider their verdict.
Sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court
There are a number of sentences that can be imposed in the Magistrates’ Court. We have included some of the more common types in this magistrates court guide below:
If the defendant indicates a guilty plea, pleads guilty or is 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 the defendant 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 dependent 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 the defendant in the community. These requirements are similar to Community Orders (see below for more detail). If the defendant fails 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 the defendant 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 the character of the defendant 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 if the defendant does not commit another offence during the period of the discharge. A conditional discharge can be for up to three years.
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.
When sentencing, the Magistrates must consider the magistrates’ court sentencing guidelines which can be found online.