The Possibility of Reopening Criminal Cases

Criminal Trials

Following a criminal trial there is the possibility that an individual will be provided with a punishment in the shape of a prison sentence or a fine or in some cases both.

Following the punishment handed down to the individual, in some cases this may not be the end of it with the potential to reopen the case. This is a different process than that with which an appeal will be heard.

When will it be possible for a criminal case to be reopened?

Section 142 Magistrates’ Court Act 1980

Section 142 of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 states that a magistrates’ court may vary or rescind a sentence or other order imposed or made by it when dealing with an offender if it appears to the court to be in the interests of justice to do so, and it is hereby declared that this power extends to replacing a sentence or order which for any reason appears to be invalid by another which the court has power to impose or make.

Furthermore where an individual is convicted by a magistrates’ court and it subsequently appears that in the interests of justice the case should be reopened – Section 142 provides the power for this to be done.

The important issue here to note is whether it is in the interests of justice to reopen the case.

Are there any exceptions to the situation when Section 142 will apply?

The power conferred on a magistrates’ court under Section 142 of the Act will not be exercisable in relation to any sentence or order imposed by it in the following circumstances:

1. That the Crown Court has determined an appeal against:

  • That sentence or order
  • The conviction in respect of which that sentence or order was imposed or made
  • Any other sentence or order imposed or made by the magistrates’ court when dealing with the offender in respect of that conviction

2. Where the High Court has determined a case stated for the opinion of that court on any question arising in any proceedings leading to or resulting from the imposition or making of the sentence or order.

The basis notion under this Section of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 is that the case cannot be reopened by a magistrates’ court when there is still a situation arising concerning the original criminal conviction.

What is meant by “in the interests of justice”?

There is a wide discretion which can be used to determine what the relevant factors are in relation to what is meant by “in the interests of justice”. There may be a wide discretion; however, when a decision is taken it must be done using sound judicial reasoning.

The factors that a court ought to take into consideration are the following:

  • Why the convicted person did not appear at the original trial – if that was the case
  • Timelines of the application
  • Reason for any delay
  • The importance of the decision being questioned – this should include a consideration in relation to the importance to all parties including the defendant, prosecution and other interested parties such as the victim
  • Inconvenience and prejudice caused to opposing parties
  • Whether a more appropriate appeal remedy is available – it will not be considered appropriate to allow a reopening where a defendant is denied a right of appeal due to an unequivocal guilty plea

Does Section 142 of the Magistrates’ Court Act only apply to criminal convictions?

Section 142 of the Magistrates’ Court Act only relates to criminal proceedings and will have no application to any other areas of the magistrates’ court such as liability orders and detention and forfeiture in relation to proceeds of crime.

Accordingly the court will have no common law jurisdiction to reopen civil matters such as an anti-social behavior order.

What kinds of punishments does Section 142 apply to?

Individuals which have been the subject of a hospital order under Section 37 of the Mental Health Act will fall within the definition of “offender” for Section 142 meaning that a person can use Section 142 to reopen a hearing determining the issue under the Mental Health Act.

Furthermore, an order to commit an offender to prison for non-satisfaction of a confiscation order made under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is capable of being reopened.

The Court will also have the power to revisit the issue of a warrant following non-payment of fines.

Can Section 142 be used to reopen a criminal case where the defendant was not provided with a criminal conviction?

A court will also not have the power to rescind a costs order made in favour of a defendant who was not convicted of a criminal act.

The reasoning behind this is that the Section only applies to orders following a criminal conviction.

Can an individual who entered an unequivocal plea of guilty have his case reopened under Section 142?

The reasoning for this rule being imposed by Section 142 is where there has been an injustice by the court in the original decision. For this reason it is only referred to as a slip rule. If an individual was convicted following an unequivocal guilty plea, the case cannot be reopened as there was no injustice if the individual admitted to the crime.

Is there a specific time period for the case to be reopened?

There is no specific time limit provided for under Section 142 of the Act which states when a case can be reopened. In most cases, however, this should be done within 28 days.

Will an application be dismissed if it is entered after 28 days?

In some cases a magistrates’ court will not reopen a case when the application has been made after the 28 day period. However, it is not enough for them to refuse to do it simply because of the time period. For this to be able to be done the court must give a substantial reason behind the decision.