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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Magistrates' courts - what they do

If you have been charged with a crime, the process to decide whether you're guilty or not guilty begins in a magistrates' court. Find out about the types of crime a magistrates' court deals with and what happens if your case is moved to the Crown Court.

Magistrates' courts - where your case begins

All criminal court cases start in a magistrates’ court

All criminal court cases start in 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

There are some offences - for example, rape - that are so serious that a magistrates’ court is not allowed to deal with them.

If you’re charged with a serious offence you are either bailed or remanded in custody by the magistrates’ court. Your case is sent to the Crown Court straight away.

See ‘What happens if you’re charged with a crime’ to find out more about bail and custody.

Magistrates' court - how they work

A magistrates’ court has either:

  • three magistrates - they don’t have formal legal qualifications but are volunteers trained for the role
  • a district judge - who is legally trained and normally deals with more complicated cases

There is also a court legal adviser who makes sure that the right court procedures are followed.

A magistrates’ court is less formal that a Crown Court - for example, magistrates and judges do not wear gowns or wigs.

There is no jury (members of the public who decide whether you are guilty or not guilty) but the court is open to the public.

Types of cases magistrates' courts deal with

Some offences (known as ‘summary offences’) are dealt with only by magistrates’ courts. These include:

  • most motoring offences
  • minor theft - like stealing from a shop
  • minor ‘public order’ offences (like being drunk and disorderly)

The maximum punishment for a single summary offence is:

  • six months in prison, and/or
  • a fine of up to £5,000 (£2,000 in Northern Ireland)

It’s possible to get a prison sentence of up to 12 months if you’re found guilty of more than one summary offence.

More serious cases magistrates’ courts deal with

You could go to prison for up to 12 months if guilty of more than one offence

Magistrates’ courts can deal with more serious crimes, known as ‘either way’ offences. This means they can be dealt with by either a magistrates’ court or a Crown Court. More serious crimes include:

  • burglary
  • drugs offences
  • 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 (£2,000 in Northern Ireland)

It’s possible to get a prison sentence of up to 12 months if you’re found guilty of more than one either way offence.

Pleading guilty to an ‘either way’ offence

If you plead guilty, the court must decide 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. For example, if it’s likely you will get a prison sentence of more than six months.

In cases like this, you do not have a new trial at the Crown Court - it’s only to decide your sentence. You will be given a date to appear in the Crown Court to be sentenced.

Pleading not guilty to an ‘either way’ offence

If you plead not guilty to an either way offence, the court decides whether it should send the case to the Crown Court for trial.

If the magistrates’ court thinks it can deal with your case, it will ask you whether:

  • you agree to be tried there, or
  • you want to choose to be tried in the Crown Court

You should get legal advice about making this important decision.

Getting legal advice

A legal adviser (like a solicitor) can discuss your case with you. For example, whether you should ask the magistrates’ court to have your case sent to the Crown Court.

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