The criminal justice system: in court
There are three categories of criminal offence and this classification determines how a case is processed through the criminal justice system.
- Summary offences
- Indictable-only offences
In this article, we’ll follow the trial process for each category of offence.
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 with a penalty appropriate for this type offence. For example, Common Assault is a summary-only offence with a maximum custodial penalty of six months.
Over 90% of all criminal offences are dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court.
If the Defendant pleads guilty the Prosecutor will outline the facts of the case to the Court and the Defendant, through his legal representation, will explain any circumstances which may mitigate their sentence. The Court may decide to sentence immediately, as happens in most summary offences, or wait for a Pre-Sentence Report. This is an impartial report that gives the sentencing court some understanding as to why the Defendant committed the offence, explaining their background, family and work circumstances. Using this information, the court can decide the most appropriate sentence.
If the Defendant pleads not-guilty the case will be adjourned to a trial date. At the trial the Prosecutor will first call all of the witnesses including the victim/ complainant. Each witness will be questioned by the defendant’s legal representative and questions opened to the Bench. Then the Defendant and any defence witnesses will give evidence and will also be questioned by the Prosecutor. At the end of the trial, both parties will make a closing speech and the Bench will decide whether the Defendant is guilty or not-guilty.
If the verdict is not-guilty, the Defendant must be released from the dock unconditionally. If the verdict is guilty, the court will proceed to sentencing. This can happen immediately or after a Pre-Sentence Report is prepared.
The Defendant may be sentenced to a custodial sentence, i.e. a length of imprisonment, or a non-custodial sentence, such as a fine or community service.
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 both the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court with a penalty appropriate for both summary convictions (5A) and conviction on indictment (5C). 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.
The first element of an either-way offence is known as the ‘Plea Before Venue’ where the procedure is explained to the Defendant and they will be asked to indicate a plea.
If the Defendant pleads guilty, the Magistrates’ Court will hear the facts from the Prosecutor and shall either sentence immediately, wait for a Pre-Sentence Report or if they believe their own powers to be inadequate, they can commit the Defendant to the Crown Court for sentence.
If the Defendant pleads not-guilty, the Magistrates’ Court will then proceed to what is known as an ‘Allocation Hearing’, where the Magistrates will decide whether the offence should be heard in the Magistrates’ or in the Crown Court.
If the Court decide that the trial should take place in the Crown Court, then this is where the trial will take place. However, if they offer Magistrates’ Court as the venue, the Defendant has the right to choose whether to accept the offer and be tried in the Magistrates’, which will then follow the procedure for summary offences (5A), or decline the offer and be trialled in the Crown Court, which will follow the procedure for indictable-only offences (5C).
Stage 5C: indictable-only offences
An indictable-only offence is the most serious offence that a defendant may be tried with. An indictable-only offence can only be tried before a Judge and Jury in the Crown Court with a penalty appropriate for this type of offence. For example, Robbery is an indictable-only offence with a maximum custodial penalty of life imprisonment. The Crown Court deals with only a minority of cases each year.
Where a Defendant has been sent to the Crown Court for trial, whether by the Magistrates’ decision or the Defendant wishing to be tried in the Crown Court, the first stage is to hold a preliminary hearing where the Defendant will be allowed to enter a plea. This is known as an ‘Early-Plea Hearing’.
If the Defendant pleads guilty, he may be sentenced immediately or his sentence may be postponed until the completion of a Pre-Sentence Report.
If the Defendant pleads not-guilty, the judge will devise a timetable for disclosing evidence before the trial and will set a date for the ‘Plea’ and ‘Case Management Hearing’ which are obligatory in all cases tried in the Crown Court.
A trial in the Crown Court will follow a similar pattern to in the Magistrates Court, except that it will a be a Jury of twelve laymen who will decide the Defendant’s guilt or innocence. As above, should the verdict be not-guilty, the Defendant must be released unconditionally, however should the verdict be guilty, the Crown Court may impose either a custodial sentence or non-custodial sentence, or in many cases both.
© The University of Sheffield