Procedure at trial
Some 96 per cent of all criminal cases are tried in magistrates’ courts. The procedure is the same, whether the offence is triable only summarily, or triable either way, though if the offence is triable either way, the magistrates must first determine the mode of trial.
A pre-trial hearing is one which is held any time before the court begins to hear evidence from the prosecution at the trial. At such a hearing, the court may make a ruling if it is has given the parties an opportunity to be heard and it appears to the court that the ruling is in the interests of justice. Either party may apply for a ruling or the court may make it of its own motion. The matters about which the court may make a ruling are:
- Any question as to the admissibility of evidence; or
- Any other question of law.
Any ruling is binding from the time it is made until the disposal of the case. However rulings may be discharged or varied if:
- The court has given the parties an opportunity to be heard;
- It appears to the court that discharge or variation is in the interests of justice;
- There has been a material change of circumstances since the ruling was made or since any earlier application was made.
The absence of the defendant
Although the defendant will in fact often be present in court for the hearing, the magistrates have the power to proceed in his absence. There are three situations in which this may arise:
- Where the defendant fails to attend;
- Pleading by post;
- The disorderly defendant.
Absence of the prosecution
If the prosecution fails to appear at the time and place fixed for the summary trial, the magistrates may adjourn the case or dismiss the information.
Representation in private
A decision to hear representations in private is within the magistrates’ discretion, but careful consideration should always be given to whether such a step is appropriate, given the magistrates’ role as a fact-finder.
Taking the plea
The defendant must plead unequivocally guilty or not guilty. Where the magistrates have allowed the defendant to change his plea from guilty to not guilty, they should also allow him to reconsider his consent to summary trial. Where the defendant has pleaded not guilty, and wishes to change his or her pleas to guilty, he or she may do so with leave of the court any time before the court retires to consider the verdict.
The prosecution opening speech
Magistrates will be familiar with the cases that frequently come before them, so that although the prosecution has the right to an opening speech, it is usually brief.
The prosecution evidence
The prosecution calls the evidence upon which it relies. This will take the form of witnesses and written statements, if admissible and appropriate. In the Crown Court the trial judge is the tribunal of law and the jury is the tribunal of fact. In the magistrates’ court however, the magistrates are both tribunal of law and tribunal of fact.
Submission of no case to answer
At the end of the prosecution evidence, the defence may make a submission of no case to answer. A submission that there is no case to answer may properly be made and upheld:
- When there has been no evidence to prove an essential element in the alleged offence; or
- When the evidence adduced by the prosecution has been so discredited as a result of cross-examination or is so manifestly unreliable that no reasonable tribunal could safely convict on it.
The defence case
Assuming no submission of no case to answer is made, or is made and fails, the defence may present its case. The right of defence to make an opening speech is rarely exercised and the defence usually begins to call its evidence straight away.
The defence has the right to either an opening or a closing speech, and invariably elects a closing speech, thus having the benefit of the last word. The prosecution does not have the right to a closing speech. However if either party wishes to make a second speech, they may do so with the leave of the court, but if the court is going to allow one party to make a second speech, it must allow the other party a second speech also. If both parties are allowed a second speech, the prosecution must go first, thus allowing the defence the benefit of the last word.
Lay magistrates usually retire to consider their verdict, and no one must retire with them as this may create the impression that they have somehow influenced the decision. District judges rarely retire, and usually announce their decision immediately after the defence’s closing speech.
If the magistrates find the case proved, they will proceed to sentence, after an adjournment if necessary. The magistrates may sentence a person over the age of 21 to a maximum period of twelve months’ imprisonment on each offence, or the statutory maximum, whichever is less. Where the person is convicted of two or more offences, the sentences may be made to run consecutively to a maximum of 65 weeks. In addition to any period of imprisonment the magistrates may fine an offender up to £5,000 per offence.
Power to rectify mistakes
A magistrates court may vary or rescind a sentence o other order imposed or made by it, if it appears to the court to be in the interests of justice to do so. The purpose of this provision is to prevent the judicial review of proceedings which clearly should be re-heard.
Committal to the Crown Court for sentence
In certain circumstances the magistrates, having found the defendant guilty of an offence or if the defendant pleads guilty, may commit the defendant to the Crown Court for sentence.