Magistrates and Crown Court
The Magistrates' court deals with the vast majority of criminal cases. In 2012 there was 1.48 million defendants proceeded against in magistrates' courts. In 2012, 88,600 defendants appeared in the Crown Court for trial, of which 96 per cent were for indictable offences. Normally, three lay magistrates sit together to hear a case but a district judge (formally known as a stipendiary) can sit alone. It is their responsibility to determine the verdict and decide upon sentence. Magistrates are advised by a legally qualified clerk of the court who sits through the proceedings although they are not allowed to given an opinion on the verdict or be involved in their deliberations on sentencing.
There are three broad categories of criminal offences:
- Indictable offences - these are serious offences set in statute (law) such as Murder or Manslaughter or serious violent or sexual offences that will attract a longer sentences
- Summary offences - these are comparatively less serious offences such as motoring and common assault
- Offences triable-either-way (sometimes known as either-way offences) are also identified by statute and comprise Theft, Burglary and ABH. A defendant can choose whether s/he wants to be tried summarily (in the Magistrates Court) or on indictment (in Crown Court)
- Magistrates also deal with Bail decisions, hearing representations made by both the CPS and the defendant's legal representative. Magistrates may ask questions but they are duty bound to apply the Human Rights Act to ensure that the defendant is fairly treated. Bail conditions may be applied where appropriate but clear reasons for their imposition must be given.
- The defendant has the right to unconditional bail even with ongoing investigations
- Conditional bail allows the defendant freedom but with certain caveats e.g. report to police station, electronic tag, reside at a specified address
- Bail is not granted if defendant is charged with a specified serious offence such as homicide or rape
- Remand in Custody where no bail has been requested or given
Bail cannot be granted if the defendant has or is considered liable to:
- Fail to surrender
- Commit a further offence
- Interfere with a witness
- Obstruct the course of justice
- Breach bail conditions
- Pose a significant risk to public security
- Is already in custody
It can also be refused for the defendant's own protection such as where the individual is a known police informer or paedophile.
Identify the sentencing options available in Magistrates Courts. What are the maximum community and custodial penalties that can be made at a Magistrates Court? For further information visit:
When deliberating upon an appropriate sentence the court must take into account how it will:
There are four sentencing options available to judges and magistrates:
Prison will be kept for the most serious offences
The Court must state reasons for the sentence passed in every case, consider the offender's culpability in committing the offence and any harm that has been caused. The sentences imposed by judges and magistrates in individual cases are entirely up to them, within the maximum penalties set by law, although they must normally follow the sentencing guidelines produced by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
The Crown Court is presided over by a Circuit Judge, Recorder or Assistant Recorder although High Court Judges are used for serious cases. All Judges have a legal background and they are responsible for ensuring that the correct legal procedures are followed in their courts. They decide on points of law and on the admissibility of evidence, direct the jury on points of law and determine sentence if the defendant is found guilty.
Criminal cases come to the Crown court via three routes: some may have been sent or committed for trial from the Magistrates Court. Others are sent to the higher court for sentence because the sentencing powers of the Magistrates are insufficient, while others involve appeals against decisions of guilt or sentence that were made at the Magistrates Court.
Below is a chart adapted from Davies, Croall and Tyrer (2005:21) that illustrates the different stages of the criminal justice process and the numerous interactions an offender will have with different criminal justice personnel along the way. Decisions are taken that will influence outcomes and these will be informed by the ideologies underpinning the different models of justice.
Criminal Justice Flow Chart 2: The Criminal Courts - from first court appearance to conviction (for routine cases involving adults) (adapted from Davies, Croall and Tyrer 2005: 21)
Sentence options in the Crown Court fall into the same categories as the lower court, but restrictions on financial and custodial elements are lifted; indeed fines in the Crown Court have no upper limits.
The Crown court can be an intimidating place to the first time visitor, full of tradition and formality.