Reopening criminal cases in the Magistrates’ Court

When might a criminal case be reopened?

Under the so-called ‘double jeopardy rule’, an individual cannot be tried for the same crime twice – unless new and compelling evidence is produced in relation to very serious offences (Part 10 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003).

On conviction in the Magistrates’ Court, an offender may be able to appeal the conviction and/or sentence. In some scenarios, the case may be reopened if it is in the interests of justice to do so. Reopening a case is different to an appeal.

Following a conviction, the court will impose an appropriate punishment on the offender. This may be a prison sentence, a fine or community service.

When can a criminal case be reopened in the Magistrates’ Court?

A Magistrates’ Court has the power to vary or rescind a sentence or other order imposed on the offender if it appears to the court to be in the interests of justice to do so. This power includes
extending or replacing a sentence or order which appears to be invalid (section 142 Magistrates’ Court Act 1980).

Furthermore, where an individual is convicted in the Magistrates’ Court – the case can be reopened if it subsequently becomes apparent that it is in the interests of justice for the court to do so.

Are there any exceptions to the Section 142 power?

The magistrates cannot exercise their section 142 power in relation to any sentence or order imposed by it in the following circumstances:

  • The Crown Court has ruled on an appeal against that sentence or order, the conviction itself, or any other sentence/order of the Magistrates’ Court when dealing with the offender in respect of that conviction;
  • The High Court has ruled in an appeal ‘by way of a case stated’ where it is believed there has been an error of law in the original trial or in the imposition or making of the sentence or order.

In other words, the section 142 powers cannot be used by magistrates to reopen a case in the basis notion under this section of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 where a higher court has ruled in relation to that case.

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

The critical aspect to reopening a criminal case is that it must be in the interests of justice. “Interests of justice” is interpreted broadly, and the court has a wide discretion in determining whether it is in the interests of justice. The factors that a court takes into account and must weigh up include:

  • Why the convicted person did not appear at the original trial – if relevant;
  • 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?

The section 142 powers only relate to criminal proceedings. They do not apply to other proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court such as liability orders, anti-social behaviour orders, and detention and forfeiture in relation to proceeds of crime.

What sanctions are covered by the section 142 powers?

Offenders who have been the subject of a hospital order under section 37 of the Mental Health Act (MHA) will fall within the definition of “offender” for the purposes of section 142. This means a person subject to the MHA can also apply under section 142 to have their case reopened.

An order to commit an offender to prison for non-satisfaction of a confiscation order made under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is also 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 did not receive a criminal conviction?

No. For example, the court cannot rescind a costs order made against a defendant who was not convicted of a criminal offence. Section 142 only applies where the offender is convicted of a criminal offence.

Can an individual who pleaded guilty have his case reopened under section 142?

No, section 142 may only be relied on in the case of an injustice by the court in the original decision. If someone pleads guilty, the case cannot be reopened as no injustice has occurred.

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 after 28 days be dismissed?

In some cases, a Magistrates’ Court will not reopen a case when the application has been made after 28 days. However, the court must give a substantial reason behind a decision not to reopen the case.