All cases start life in the magistrates’ court but not all cases are tried in the magistrates’ court.
Offences will be tried in the Crown Court if they are:
Indictable only, or
Triable either way and the mode of trial hearing in the magistrates’ court results in the decision that the case should be tried in the Crown Court.
In either of these situations, the case must therefore be moved from the magistrates’ court to the Crown Court.
There are FOUR ways in which a case can be moved to the Crown Court:
‘Sent’ under section 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (currently available for indictable only offences);
Notice of transfer; and
A voluntary bill of indictment.
Committal proceedings only relate to either way offences. If, following the mode of trial procedure, it has been decided that an either way offence should be heard in the Crown Court, the case will be adjourned for a committal hearing. These hearings take place at the magistrates’ court usually six weeks after the mode of trial hearing if the accused is on bail, four weeks if he is in custody. One of the purposes of committal proceedings is to filter out weak or ill-prepared cases, where there is insufficient evidence against a defendant to justify a trial.
Prosecution evidence has to be sufficient to show a prima facie case before the magistrates may commit a case to the Crown Court for trial. If there is not sufficient evidence the case will be discharged.
In every case, the CPS is under a duty to ensure that there is a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’ before commencing a prosecution. Section 5 of the Code for Crown Prosecutors sets out the two-stage test prosecutors must apply when deciding to prosecute an individual for a criminal offence, namely the evidential stage and the public interest stage.
Stage 1 of the test
Crown prosecutors must first be satisfied that there is enough evidence to provide a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’ against the defendant on each charge.
The stage of the test is objective. A prosecutor must also consider whether the evidence is admissible and is reliable, what the defence case may be, and how that is likely to affect the prosecution case.
Stage 2 of the test
If, and only if, the case passes the evidential stage a prosecutor must then consider the second stage, namely whether the prosecution is needed in the public interest.
There are two forms of committal proceedings, referred to as:
Committal under section 6(2) Magistrates’ Court Act 1980:
Does NOT involve consideration of the evidence against the accused;
The whole hearing takes a matter of minutes;
Will be held if the defence accepts that there is a prima facie case to answer
(this is NOT the same as accepting guilt or that the evidence is correct);
Is the most common form of committal.
Initially a case will automatically be listed for a s.6(2) committal.
Committal under section 6(1) Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980:
Involves consideration of the evidence against the accused;
Will be held if the defence wishes to make a submission that there is no prima facie case made out on the papers.
S. 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act (CDA) 1998
All indictable only offences start in the magistrates’ court. They will usually be sent to the Crown Court at the first magistrates’ court hearing. Section 51 and Schedule 3 CDA 1998 deal with the procedure to be followed.
Section 51 states:
Where an adult appears or is brought before a magistrates’ court charged with an offence triable only on indictment the court shall send him forthwith to the Crown Court for trial:
For that offence, and
For any either-way or summary offence with which he is charged which fulfils the requisite conditions.
Under s.51, the defendant appears in the magistrates’ court on a first appearance but is then sent immediately to the Crown Court under s. 51 and Schedule 3 of the CDA 1998.
In addition, the magistrates may send to the Crown Court under s. 51:
A defendant who has already been sent to the Crown Court in respect of an indictable only matter and who is subsequently charged with a related either way offence;
Adult co-defendants who are charged with a related triable either way offence but who appear subsequent to a defendant already sent to the Crown Court; and
Juveniles jointly charged with an adult with an indictable only offence where the magistrates consider it in the interests of justice for the juvenile to be tried jointly; and
Juveniles’ sent to the Crown Court by reason of the above in respect of any related either way or summary only offence.
Notice of transfer
In certain circumstances a case may reach the Crown Court without first going through committal proceedings. The prosecution merely serve a notice on the defendant transferring the case to the Crown Court.
This procedure applies in two types of case:
Serious fraud cases; and
Child witness cases
A Bill of Voluntary Indictment
The prosecution may in certain circumstances obtain a bill of indictment by the direction or with the consent of a High Court judge-this is known as a voluntary bill of indictment-and is a method by which committal proceedings can be avoided.
Moving to Trial
Cases are sent to the most convenient Crown Court i.e. convenient to parties and witnesses and expediting the trial. This usually means the Crown Court closest to the magistrates’ court where the defendant first appears.
The Crown Court has the power to alter the place of trial and can take into account wider considerations than the magistrates in selecting a suitable location e.g. possible prejudice to the accused if the allegation has given rise to public hostility in the local area.