Almost all cases start in the Magistrates’ Court, no matter what the seriousness.
A first appearance in the Magistrates’ Court will be the first opportunity a defendant has to make representations to the court. It’s very important to attend hearings promptly as if your case is called on the court may proceed in your absence.
It’s always advisable to seek legal advice and representation. Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice, a solicitor or direct-access barrister will be able to advise you on what to do when faced with a prosecution. It is possible to contact the court and ask for a list of local solicitors firms. Some firms offer free initial advice. If you are unemployed or on a low income you may be eligible for legal aid. Your solicitor will fill in legal aid forms with you and submit these to the Legal Services Commission, who will then decide whether you are eligible for free representation, whether you have to financially contribute to that representation, or whether you are not eligible for legal aid.
Ensure you arrive at court at least 30 minutes before your hearing. Magistrates’ Courts generally open at 9am and hearings start at 10am and 2pm. If you haven’t sought legal advice or representation, ask to see the duty solicitor. They will normally be able to represent you at the first hearing, for free.
Not guilty plea
If you plead not guilty the case will proceed to ‘mode of trial’. Some offences can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Court (‘summary only’ offences). More serious offences can be tried either in the Magistrates’ Court or at the Crown Court in front of a judge and jury (‘either-way’ offences). Very serious cases may only be tried in the Crown Court (‘indictable only’ offences).
Mode of trial
If the offence is an either-way matter, the prosecutor will advise the court which venue is more suitable. You or your representative will be asked to comment. You may choose to be tried at the Crown Court even if the prosecutor and the court feel the Magistrates’ Court is the more suitable venue. If your trial is to be heard in the Magistrates’ Court a trial date will be fixed. For Crown Court cases, you will be informed of the next hearing date, which will either be a committal in the Magistrates’ Court (where the case papers are formally submitted in preparation for trial) or a Plea and Case Management Hearing in the Crown Court (where the formalities of the trial, such as witnesses and time estimates, are discussed).
If you plead guilty, the court may proceed to sentence. In either-way cases the Mode of Trial provisions described above apply, albeit the court will be determining ‘mode of sentence’. If the offence is deemed serious, the Magistrates’ Court may send you to be sentenced in the Crown Court. If, on the other hand, the Magistrates’ Court feel their sentencing powers are sufficient, you will be sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court. The court may ask for reports to be made on you. If this happens, you will then see probation to discuss the circumstances around the offence. This may either be on the same day or a different day. At a later hearing, the prosecutor will relay the facts of the case, probation will give a written or oral ‘Pre-Sentence Report’ and the court will sentence you.
The most serious offences can only be tried or sentenced in the Crown Court. These cases will be ‘sent’ to the Crown Court.