Criminal Justice

Judges and magistrates play a vital role in the criminal justice system.

Criminal cases come to court after a decision has been made by, usually the Crown Prosecution Service, to prosecute someone for an alleged crime. The vast majority of cases (over 95 per cent), are heard in the Magistrates’ court, either by a panel of three Magistrates or by a District Judge (Magistrates’ court). They hear the evidence, and make a decision on guilt or innocence. If the defendant is found guilty, the Magistrates or District Judge (Magistrates’ court) will decide the sentence or send the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

The more serious criminal cases are heard in the Crown Court, usually by a Circuit Judge or Recorder sitting with a jury (in the most serious cases, the case may be heard by a High Court Judge sitting with a jury). In those cases, the judge is responsible for ensuring the trial is conducted fairly and explains the relevant law to the jury. The jury is responsible for deciding whether the defendant is guilty.

Both magistrates and judges have the power to imprison those convicted of a crime, if the offence is serious enough. But imprisonment is not the only sentence that may be imposed; a judge or magistrate can order a community punishment, or impose a fine. Although punishment is a key consideration when sentencing, judges will also consider how a particular sentence may reduce the chances of an individual re-offending.

A judge hearing a criminal case

Before a criminal trial starts, the judge will familiarise themselves with the details of the case by reading the relevant case papers. These include the indictment which sets out the charges on which the defendant is to be tried, witness statements, exhibits and documentation on applications to be made by any party concerning the admissibility of evidence in the trial.

For jury trials in the Crown Court, the judge supervises the selection and swearing in of the jury, giving the jurors a direction about their role in the trial of deciding the facts and warning them not to discuss the case with anyone else or do their own research.

During the trial

Once the trial has commenced, the judge ensures that the case is conducted fairly and that all parties involved are given the opportunity for their case to be presented and considered. The judge plays an active role during the trial, controlling the way the case is conducted in accordance with relevant law and practice. As the case progresses, the judge makes notes of the evidence and decides on legal issues, for example, whether evidence is admissible.

Once all evidence in the case has been heard, the judge will sum up the case. The judge sets out for the jury the law on each of the charges made and what the prosecution must prove. At this stage the judge refers to notes made during the course of the trial and reminds the jury of the key points of the case, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s argument. The judge then gives directions about the duties of the jury before they retire to the jury deliberation room to consider the verdict.


If the jury find the defendant guilty then the judge will decide on an appropriate sentence. The sentence will be influenced by a number of factors: principally seriousness of the offence, the impact that the crime has had on the victim, and relevant law especially guidance from the Sentencing Council. The judge will take into account the mitigation and any reports and references on the defendant. Only once the judge has considered all of these factors will the appropriate sentence or punishment be pronounced.

Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)

Appeals from the Crown Court are heard by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). The Lord Chief Justice is President of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division. He is supported in this role by a Vice President.

Cases are usually heard by a Lord or Lady Justice and two High Court judges.

High Court Judge – Criminal Jurisdiction

High Court judges can hear the most serious and sensitive cases in the Crown Court (for example murder) and some sit with Appeal Court judges in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.

Circuit Judges – Criminal

Circuit Judges may deal solely with Civil, Family or Criminal work, or divide their time between the three. Most Crown Court cases are heard by Circuit Judges, although less complex or serious matters may be dealt with by Recorders. Some cases from Magistrates’ courts will come to the Crown Court to be heard by a Circuit Judge – for example, if the defendant has opted for trial by jury, or the magistrates decide they do not have sufficient sentencing powers to deal with a guilty party (magistrates can impose a maximum 6 month sentence for a single offence, with a total of 12 months for multiple offences).

District Judge (Magistrates’ courts)

A District Judge (Magistrates’ courts) is a legally qualified, salaried judge and they usually deal with the longer and more complex matters that come before Magistrates’ courts. District Judges (Magistrates’ courts) also have jurisdiction to hear cases under the Extradition Acts and the Fugitive Offender Acts.


Magistrates are local members of the community who are appointed to sit in the Magistrates’ court. Three magistrates sit together to hear and decide cases. They are volunteers and are unpaid (except for expenses). Magistrates must sit for at least 13 days a year.


Recorders are part-time judges. For many it is the first step on the judicial ladder to appointment to the Circuit Bench. Recorders’ jurisdiction is broadly similar to that of a Circuit Judge, but they generally handle less complex or serious matters coming before the court.

Recorders are fully qualified solicitors or barristers with at least ten years’ experience. They are required to sit for at least 30 days every year.