The majority of criminal proceedings begin in the magistrate’s court and over 90% of them will reach their conclusion in this court too. If the offence is more serious, it will be passed over to the Crown Court. This is either for a full trial with a judge or jury or in the majority of cases, for sentencing once the defendant has been found guilty through the Magistrates court.
The role of the Magistrates Court is to process three main types of criminal case:
- Summary Offence – This offence is less serious and includes a range of thing such as minor assault or a motoring offence. The case does not usually involve a trial with a jury and are generally dealt with in a magistrate’s court.
- Either-Way Offence – This type of offence handled by the Magistrates or at the Crown Court which will involve a jury and a judge who will preside over the case. Offences which are dealt with under the ‘Either-Way’ category may include an offence such as handling stolen goods or theft. Defendants involved in these types of cases can request a Crown Court trial. A Magistrate can also determine whether the case is serious enough so that it warrants being managed in the Crown Court where tougher sentences can be handed down if the defendant is found guilty.
- Indictable Only – These types of offences can only be heard in the Crown Court due to their seriousness and include robbery, rape, manslaughter and murder
If an offence falls into the indictable only category, the only part the Magistrates Court will play is to determine whether bail should be granted and whether any other issues should be taken into consideration such as restrictions for reporting. The main management of the case will be dealt with by the Crown Court.
Magistrates Court Sentencing
Where a case is managed in the Magistrates Court, a plea will have to be entered by the defendant. If they are found guilty or they plead guilty, the Magistrates can hand down a sentence which is usually no longer than six months in prison for one offence or a financial penalty which is usually no more than £5,000. If the defendant is acquitted (found not guilty) the defendant is innocent in the eyes of the law, they can return home, provided that there are no other outstanding cases to be heard against them.
A case in the Magistrates court will be heard by either a single district judge or two or three magistrates.
The Magistrates Explained
Within this type of court, the magistrates are Justices of the Peace. Usually, they are volunteers and members of the community. To be a magistrate they do not need to be legally qualified but they will have completed a training programme which will include visits to prisons and courts to acquire the required skills. During cases the magistrates will receive advice and guidance from qualified legal clerks.
A district judge on the other hand is a fully qualified, full time paid professional who is based in a larger city. It is the role of the District Judge to hear more complex cases.
Magistrates and Criminal Courts
As outlined above, the vast majority of criminal cases are handled by the Magistrates court. In addition to dealing with minor offences they will also process cases such as fine enforcements, right of entry applications or search warrants or in some instances they may consider non-payment of council tax, vehicle excise or television licences.
Magistrates will sit in a criminal court in a panel of three. Each member of the panel will be of varying ages, gender and ethnicity so they can bring with them different levels of experience to the bench. Although they will all hold equal powers in relation to decision making, only one of them who is nominated the Chairman will be able to speak in court and lead proceedings.
When a defendant pleads not guilty, this will result in a trial where the magistrates will listen to and sometimes review evidence which has been presented by both the defence and prosecution. Once they have heard both sides, they will make a decision based on the facts that have been presented to them and then consider whether a case has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
If the defendant pleads guilty or where the court finds them guilty, the magistrates will pursue a sentencing structure using a specific decision making process and using guidelines on sentencing which detail the penalties for certain offences. The magistrate will also take into consideration any case law and practice directions from the higher courts and will be provided with advice in court by a qualified legal advisor.
Where a single offence is committed by someone over the age of 18 years, the sentencing powers of the magistrate will allow them to impose fines, issue Orders such as community payback or probation or set custodial sentences.
Within youth courts, magistrates are specially trained because the procedures surrounding offences are not as formal as an adult court. Within a youth court, the magistrate will speak to the defendant rather than communicate through their legal representative. When it comes to dealing with criminal cases, a youth court can process all cases which are committed by juveniles with the exception of homicide which needs to be dealt with through a higher court. When attending court, the defendant must be accompanied by an adult unless they are classed as being mature enough to act independently.
In the majority of cases, the magistrate will deal with criminal proceedings only. However, there are instances where some magistrates can also make decisions when it comes to civil matters. Usually they will be involved in family law and cases of this nature. Civil roles will also include offences such as failure to pay council tax. Before magistrates can participate in family proceedings, they must have completed extensive training. This is because the procedures in this court are very different and the court setting is quite different. The role will also involve a lot of reading because they will be required to review a lot of information from reports and statements through to case files.
About the author:
This article was written by a member of the Expert Answers legal advice team and posted by Lloyd Barrett. Expert Answers provides online legal advice on all aspects of UK Law to users in the United Kingdom.