Skip to main content


Criminal Justice

Most people feel very strongly about crime, and judges and magistrates play a vital role in the criminal justice system – especially when it comes to sentencing.

Criminal cases come to court after a decision has been made by, usually the Crown Prosecution Service, to prosecute someone for an alleged crime. In the vast majority of cases (over 95 per cent), magistrates hear the evidence and, as a panel, make a decision on guilt or innocence. For more serious cases a district judge (Magistrates’ Court) or a circuit judge in the Crown Court will hear the evidence, and in the case of the latter, this will involve a jury trial. Very serious criminal cases, such as murder and rape, may be heard by a High Court judge.

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 solution; a judge or magistrate can order a community punishment, or put an individual under some sort of control order where their movements or activities are restricted. Although punishment is a key consideration when sentencing, judges will also have a mind as to 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 himself or herself 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.

During the trial

Once the trial has commenced the judge ensures that all parties involved are given the opportunity for their case to be presented and considered as fully and fairly as possible. 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’s summing up takes place. The judge sets out for the jury the law on each of the charges made and what the prosecution must prove to make the jury sure of the case. 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 the circumstances of the case, the impact that the crime has had on the victim, and relevant law especially guideline cases from the Court of Appeal. The judge will equally 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

The Lord Chief Justice is President of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division. He is supported in this role by a Vice President. Judges in the Criminal Division hear appeals in criminal matters from the Crown Court.

In the Criminal Division the bench usually consists of a Lord or Lady Justice and usually 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.

Most High Court Judges sit in the Queen’s Bench Division. They will also deal at first instance with the more serious criminal cases heard in the Crown Court and, relatively early in their careers can be appointed to hear serious criminal matters in Crown Court centres out of London (known as being “on circuit”) .

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 fee-paid 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 six-month sentence for a single offence, with a total of 12 months for multiple offences).


Recorders are fee-paid, 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.

It is a post open to any fully qualified solicitor or barrister with at least ten years’ practice before the Crown or county courts. They are required to sit for between 15 and 30 days every year with at least one ten-day continuous period. The appointment is for an initial five-year period, extendible for further successive five year terms up to the retirement age of 65.

District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts)

The role of a district judge (magistrates’ courts) is to complement the work of the magistracy. They are legally qualified, salaried judges 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.