Making an appearance in court

How is a person called to court?

A defendant or witness can be called to court by a summons, or because they are on bail, or as a result of their arrest leading to criminal charges and then a court hearing.

Being summoned to court

A court summons is most commonly used in situations involving breach of bail conditions or, for example, for non-payment of council tax. In order for the magistrates to serve a summons, the prosecutor must provide a detailed account of the offence that has been committed and submit it to the Magistrates’ Court, or the court clerk.

The police can also apply to the magistrates for an arrest warrant for reasons including that a court summons on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure a witness attends trial; or that a suspect’s address is not so established that a summons on its own would be sufficient.

Serving a summons

If a court summons is granted, it must then be served on the person ordered to attend court. The summons can be served either in person, ie. by hand; or in the case of a minor offence a summons may be served by recorded delivery or registered post.

The defendant has the option to plead guilty to a summary offence via post, providing the maximum penalty for the offence does not exceed 3 months’ imprisonment. If the defendant chooses to plead guilty by post, they do not need to attend court and the matter will be dealt with in their absence. This is most common in the case of traffic offences.

Classification of offences

There are three different categories of criminal offences: summary offences, indictable offences and either way (or hybrid) offences.

Summary offences

These are minor crimes and are only dealt with at the Magistrates’ Court. They are heard by a magistrate sitting alone, and the defendant does not have to be in attendance. Summary offences include offensive behaviour, minor assaults, some road traffic offences, and damage to property.

Indictable offences

These are the most serious offences such as rape, murder and other serious violent offences. Trials of indictable offences are almost always heard in the Crown Court in front of a judge and jury. Typical examples of indictable offences also include drugs offences, people trafficking and manslaughter.

That said, all trials start at the Magistrates’ Court and defendants on an indictment will be sent to the Crown Court for trial (or sentencing in the case of a guilty plea).

Either way offences

An either way offence (also known as hybrid offences) is an offence that may be tried at Magistrates’ Court or in the Crown Court. These types of crimes may include property offences, such as theft or burglary, and some violent offences.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, they can elect for a trial by jury at the Crown Court if they wish. Otherwise, the magistrates can decide whether or not to send the case to the Crown Court. This may depend on whether they have adequate sentencing powers in relation to the offence charged, or because of the seriousness of the offence charged.

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For more information on:

  • Initial hearing at the Magistrates’ Court
  • Plea and case management hearings at the Crown Court
  • What is disclosure?
  • Plea bargaining
  • The trial