What happens when a crime is committed?
So we have seen how criminal justice works in theory, but how does it work in practice?
We have created a flowchart which outlines each stage of this process and in this article, we’ll briefly outline what happens at each stage.
Stage 1: A crime is allegedly committed and recorded by the police
At the very start of the criminal justice system is the allegation of a criminal offence. The word ‘allegation’ is important as it signifies an essential element of the criminal justice process. It points to the fundamental principle of ‘Innocent until Proven Guilty’.
The majority of criminal offences are recorded by the police (although they are not the only body that holds such a role). Once a crime has been recorded i.e. it has been reported by a victim/complainant or it has come to the attention of the police, they will conduct an investigation into the alleged offence.
Stage 2: Investigation and suspect interviews (under arrest or voluntarily)
An investigation may include viewing a crime scene, collecting forensic evidence, and questioning victims and witnesses.
This may result in enough evidence for the police to have reasonable grounds to arrest a suspect for an offence, for which their arrest is also considered necessary (e.g. because the police wish to obtain more evidence by questioning the suspect).
In arresting a suspect, the individual must be cautioned in a prescribed manner (the police caution), informed that they are under arrest and told the reasons for their arrest.
In the police interview, the police are encouraged, through their training, to take an information-gathering approach, in which they may ask suspects to account for their whereabouts at a certain time, for example. All interviews must be recorded using, for example, audio or audio-visual equipment in police interview rooms.
Stage 3: Suspect is charged
In many cases, decisions about whether and what to charge a suspect with rest with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This is an independent body which was created under the Prosecution of Offenders Act 1985 to provide an additional check and balance in the criminal justice process.
Their decision about whether to charge someone is based on two sets of considerations:
- Is there enough evidence to prove the case?
- Is it in the public interest to bring the case to court?
Together these considerations are known as the full-code test.
Once charged with an offence, the suspect will be bailed by the police or kept in police custody until his first appearance in the Magistrates’ Court, where a decision will be reached about whether the suspect may be bailed by the court or should instead be remanded into custody in prison.
Stage 4: Initial appearance in the Magistrates’ Court
Regardless of the offence committed, whether it be a minor motoring offence or a serious offence such as murder, the defendant will always appear first in the Magistrates’ Court.
The seriousness of the case will determine where an individual’s case is to be heard. There are three categories of offences and each vary in terms of which court the case will be held in.
• Summary offences
• Indictable offences
Stage 5A: summary offences
A summary offence is the least serious offence that a defendant can be tried for. Summary offences can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Court, where they will receive aa penalty commensurate tothis type offence. For example, Common Assault is a summary offence with a maximum custodial penalty of six months.
Over 90% of all criminal offences are dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court.
Stage 5B: either-way offences
An either-way offence is a middle-ranking offence in terms of seriousness. An either-way offence can be tried in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, with the penalty for the same offence varying depending on the type of court in which the case is heard. For example, Theft is an either-way offence with a maximum custodial penalty of six months in the Magistrates’, but seven years in the Crown Court.
Even though penalties are potentially greater in the Crown Court, a defendant may opt to be tried here because in the Crown Court, they will be tried in front of a judge and jury, rather than only by Magistrates.
Stage 5C: indictable offences
An indictable offence is the most serious offence that a defendant may be tried for. An indictable offence can only be tried before a judge and jury in the Crown Court, where they are more likely to receive a harsher penalty. This reflects the more serious nature of crimes that are heard in Crown Courts.
For example, Robbery is an indictable offence with a maximum custodial penalty of life imprisonment. The Crown Court deals with a minority of cases each year.
© The University of Sheffield