Just about all criminal cases start in the Magistrates’ Courts and more than 90% are dealt with entirely in the Magistrates’ Court. The procedure of trial is the same, whether the offence is a summary offence (ie. only triable by magistrates), or an offence that is triable either way (ie. offences that can be also be dealt with in the Crown Court).
What is the procedure?
A pre-trial hearing is held before the Magistrates’ Court begins to hear evidence from the prosecution at the actual trial. These are held to resolve particular legal issues that need to be dealt with before the trial begins. At the pre-trial hearing, the court may make a ruling if it 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. A pre-trial hearing will typically deal with questions as to the admissibility of evidence or any other question of law. A ruling is binding from the time it is made until the end 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 trial at a Magistrates’ Court usually begins with the charges being read out to the defendant, who will then plead guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is absent, for instance, because of a refusal to turn up, or the plea was entered by post, the magistrates have the power to proceed in his or her absence.
If the prosecution fails to appear at the time and place fixed for the summary trial, the magistrates may adjourn the case – or dismiss it.
Taking the plea
The defendant must plead guilty or not guilty. If it is a not guilty plea, the case will be adjourned for a pre-trial hearing. If the offence is triable either way, the defendant who pleads not guilty can elect to be tried by jury in the Crown Court.
In the case of a guilty plea, the defendant can be sentenced immediately. In the case of a serious offence, the defendant may be brought back for sentencing at a later date, and could be sent up to the Crown Court if the magistrates’ powers to sentence are insufficient.
Where the defendant has pleaded not guilty, and wishes to change the plea to guilty, they can do so with leave of the court any time before the court retires to consider the verdict.
The prosecution opening speech
In the case of a not guilty plea, the prosecution will briefly give a speech outlining the case and the evidence that will be put to the court in support of its case.
The prosecution evidence
The prosecution calls the evidence upon which it relies. This will take the form of witnesses, including arresting officers, and witness statements (subject to the rules of admissibility of evidence). The defence will then cross-examine the prosecution evidence with the purpose of raising doubt on the case against the defence.
If necessary, the prosecution may then re-examine the witnesses.
Ultimately, it is for the magistrates to decide on matters of both law and fact once it has heard the evidence.
Submission of no case to answer
At the end of the prosecution evidence, the defence may choose to make a submission of ‘no case to answer’. A submission of no case to answer may be upheld in the following circumstances:
- When there has been no (or insufficient) evidence to prove an essential element of the offence, or;
- When the prosecution evidence 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
If the defence has not made a submission of no case to answer (or was unsuccessful in doing so), the defence may then present its case. The defence usually begins to call its evidence straight away. If the defendant is going to take the witness stand, this will usually be before any further defence witnesses are called.
Any expert witnesses for either the defence or the prosecution will be the last witnesses to be called.
The prosecution can then cross-examine the defence witnesses on their evidence, and the defence can re-examine them if necessary.
Representations in private
Sometimes, a witness may need to give evidence in private; for instance, because there is a very real risk of fear and intimidation. A decision to hear representations in private is within the magistrates’ discretion, but careful consideration will be given to whether such a step is appropriate, given the magistrates’ role as a fact-finder.
Witness who can’t attend court
In other cases, a defence witness is simply unable to attend court for various reasons (eg. they are ill in hospital). When this occurs, a ‘section 9’ statement can be submitted and read out in open court if the prosecution agrees. The problem is that the prosecution cannot cross-examine the witness.
The defence has the right to either an opening or a closing speech, and invariably elects a closing speech – 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. If both parties are allowed a second speech, the prosecution must go first, allowing the defence the benefit of the last word.
Lay magistrates usually retire on their own to consider their verdict. Normally, this does not take long at all. They then return to the court room and deliver their verdict.
Sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court
If the magistrates find the case proved and the defendant guilty, they will proceed to sentence (after an adjournment if necessary). The defendant’s previous convictions will be read out before sentence is passed down.
The defence can make a plea in mitigation. This is where the defendant’s lawyers tell the court why a lenient sentence should be considered because, for example, the defendant was provoked, or under intense personal stress, and so on.
The magistrates may impose an absolute discharge – or sentence a defendant to a maximum period of up to 6 months’ imprisonment for each summary offence. Where the person is convicted of two or more either-way offences, up to 12 months in prison can be imposed. The magistrates can also impose an unlimited fine on the defendant.
Committal to the Crown Court for sentence
In certain circumstances, the magistrates may commit the defendant to the Crown Court for sentence. If the offence is so serious that the magistrates take the view that a sentence more severe than what it can impose is necessary – it will send the defendant to the Crown Court where a judge will impose the appropriate sentence.