Virtually all criminal court cases start in a magistrates’ court, and around 95% will be completed there.
The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, either for sentencing after the defendant has been found guilty in a magistrates’ court, or for full trial with a judge and jury.
Magistrates deal with three kinds of cases:
- Summary offences. These are less serious cases, such as motoring offences and minor assaults, where the defendant is not usually entitled to trial by jury. They are generally disposed of in magistrates’ courts.
- Either-way offences. As the name implies, these can be dealt with either by magistrates or before a judge and jury at the Crown Court. Such offences include theft and handling stolen goods. A defendant can insist on their right to trial in the Crown Court. Magistrates can also decide that a case is so serious that it should be dealt with in the Crown Court – which can impose tougher sentences if the defendant is found guilty.
- Indictable-only offences, such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. These must be heard at a Crown Court.
If the case is indictable-only, the magistrates’ court will generally decide whether to grant bail, consider other legal issues such as reporting restrictions, and then pass the case on to the Crown Court.
If the case is to be dealt within a magistrates’ court, the defendant(s) are asked to enter a plea. If they plead guilty or are later found to be guilty, the magistrates can impose a sentence, generally of up to six months’ imprisonment for a single offence (12 months in total), or a fine of an unlimited amount. If found not guilty (‘acquitted’), defendants are judged innocent in the eyes of the law and will be free to go – provided there are no other cases against them outstanding.
Cases are either heard by two or three magistrates or by one district judge.
Who sits in a Magistrates’ court
District Judges (Magistrates’ courts)
District judges (Magistrates’ courts) are full-time members of the judiciary who hear cases in magistrates’ courts. They usually deal with the longer and more complex matters coming before the magistrates’ courts.
Magistrates are trained, unpaid members of their local community, who work part-time and deal with less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences.
As magistrates do not need to have legal qualifications, they are advised in court on matters of law, practice and procedure. This advice is provided by Justices’ Clerks and Assistant Justices’ Clerks.
They may also be referred to as a legal advisor.
If you are a victim of crime, or a witness in a case you can contact the Citizen Advice Witness Service (external link, opens in a new tab) for information and a chance to look round the court.