The United Kingdom's Court System

The United Kingdom's Court System

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The United Kingdom's Court System

In the trial process in England and Wales is adversarial. In the magistrates' courts, magistrates determine guilt or innocence. In the Crown Court, a jury of twelve ordinary citizens will decide..

The prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. The prosecutor will make his case first by calling and examining
witnesses. These are then cross-examined by the defence. The defence is not obliged to call evidence and the defendant is not
a compellable witness. Any witnesses called by the defence may be cross-examined by the prosecution. The court also has the
power to call any witness, other than the defendant. Generally, evidence is oral and given under oath to the court by the witness
concerned. However, documentary evidence is admissible in certain circumstances. Subject to exclusionary rules, all evidence
which is sufficiently relevant to the facts or issue is admissible.

After the prosecution and defence closing speeches in the Crown Court, the judge will give the jury directions on the law and a
summary of the evidence. He will then invite the jury to retire and to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury can be asked to give a
majority verdict (either 10-2 or 11-1) if they have considered the verdict for a reasonable time and cannot come to a
unanimous decision. The jury can be discharged from giving a verdict if they are unable to reach a majority decision. In these
circumstances, the prosecution has discretion to seek a re-trial.


The procedure in the magistrates' court is primarily governed by the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.


Proceedings are either commenced by arrest, charge and production to the court, either on bail or in custody, or by the laying
of an information followed by the issue of a summons or a warrant. The information sets out details of the offence; where the
defendant is charged by the police the charge sheet forms the information. If the defendant is held in custody he/she must
appear before the magistrates' court as soon as practicable and in any event at the first sitting after being charged (thereafter he
can be remanded for up to four weeks at a time before attending court again). A defendant may be released on bail. The
granting of bail is governed by the Bail Act 1976 and the Bail (Amendment) Act 1993.

Court Procedure - Summary Offences.

The defendant is asked if he pleads guilty or not guilty.

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If he pleads guilty the case proceeds to sentence. If he
pleads not guilty the case is adjourned - in some courts directly to a trial date, in others firstly to a pre-trial
review and then to the trial date.

The procedure to be followed at a summary trial is set out in rule 13 Magistrates' Courts Rules 1981 i.e. prosecutor addresses
court, prosecution evidence is heard then defence evidence and then accused may address the court. The defendant is not
obliged to disclose his defence before trial but can voluntarily produce a defence statement.

Court Procedure - Either Way Offences.

The defendant is asked whether he would plead guilty or not guilty if the offence were to proceed to trial. If he
indicates a guilty plea the court will proceed to sentence or commit to the Crown Court for sentence. If the
defendant indicates he would plead not guilty or fails to indicate what his plea would be the court proceeds to
determine mode of trial.

The prosecution and defence make representations as to which appears more suitable, summary trial or trial
on indictment. The court decide which mode of trial appears more suitable, and if summary trial appears more
suitable the defendant is asked if he consents to summary trial or wishes to be tried by jury. If he consents to
summary trial the court proceeds as at 2 above, if he does not consent the court proceeds as examining
justices and the case is adjourned for committal. Similarly, if the court decides trial on indictment is more
suitable the court proceeds as examining justices.

Court Procedure - Indictable only offences

At first appearance these case are adjourned for committal papers to be prepared.

Reporting Restrictions

Under section 39 of the Children and Young Person's Act 1933, any court may direct that no newspaper report of the
proceedings may reveal the name, address, or school, or include any particulars calculated to lead to the identification of any
child or young person concerned in the proceedings (this includes photographs).


Anonymity is afforded to victims in certain specified sexual offences.

Committal Proceedings.

The defence and court are served with the committal papers. If the defence are content that the papers disclose
a prima facie case, the case is committed to the Crown Court without consideration of the evidence. However,
if the defence want to submit that a prima facie case is not disclosed, the court considers the evidence and
decides whether to commit the defendant or discharge him.

Transfer Proceedings.

Indictable offences involving fraud or violence towards children can be transferred to the Crown Court rather than going
through the normal committal procedure. If the prosecution is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence, they serve a notice of
transfer on the magistrates' court whereupon the functions of that court, subject to certain exceptions cease. Where a notice of
transfer has been given, the defendant may at any time before he is arraigned apply to the Crown Court for the charge to be
dismissed on the ground that the evidence which has been disclosed would not be sufficient for a jury to properly convict him of
it. Once notice of transfer is served, the magistrates have no jurisdiction except for bail or legal aid.

Sending indictable only offences to the Crown Court.

Under section 51 Crime and Disorder Act 1998 where a defendant charged with an offence triable only on indictment appears
before a magistrates' court the court shall send him forthwith to the Crown Court for trial. There are provisions allowing either
way and summary offences related to the indictable only offence to be sent as well. There is a procedure similar to that under
the transfer provisions for application to be made to the Crown Court to dismiss the charge.

Proceedings against children and young persons

Proceedings against children and young persons (that is people aged over 10 but under 18) are for the most part dealt with in
the youth court as summary offences. However, the youth court may decide that certain 'grave crimes' need to be committed
to the Crown Court for trial. Where the youth court so decides, a case may be also committed to the Crown Court, or remitted
to another youth court, for sentence. In some instances older juveniles can be dealt with in an adult court where charged jointly
with an adult. There are also provisions for a youth turning 18 to be remitted to an adult magistrates' court for trial or sentence.


Committals for Trial

Cases for trial are committed, transferred or sent to the Crown Court. See MAGISTRATES' COURTS PROCEDURES

These cases normally first appear in the Crown Court on a date given them by the magistrates' courts, in liaison with the
appropriate Crown Court centre, for a plea and directions hearing (PDH). The indictment (statement of charge(s) faced by the
defendant) must be preferred by the prosecution within twenty-eight days of committal (etc), subject to a judge allowing more
time, and signed by an officer of the court. If the case is to be contested, the trial date may be fixed at the PDH or put the case
into a warned (standby) list for a particular period. If the defendant pleads guilty, he may be sentenced there and then, or
remanded for reports to a future date. Transferred cases (children / serious fraud) are, by local arrangement, likely to be dealt
with differently, because of the need to expedite children's hearings and to find suitable dates for serious fraud trials, which
usually take much longer than the average case.

The prosecution are required to complete primary prosecution disclosure as soon as possible after committal (primary
prosecution disclosure is unused material in the hands of the prosecution which serves to undermine the prosecution case or
assist the line of defence disclosed). Defence disclosure must take place within 14 days of primary prosecution disclosure
having been completed. The prosecution must then complete secondary prosecution disclosure as soon as possible thereafter.

On the date fixed for the trial at the PDH or communicated to the parties by the Crown Court List Officer, a randomly selected
(by ballot) jury is sworn in to try the case. In the event that the defendant is convicted, he may be sentenced there and then or
remanded for reports to a future date.

Committals for Sentence

A magistrates' court which convicts a defendant tried "summarily" (i.e. in the magistrates' court) may commit him for sentence
by the Crown Court in circumstances where it is thought that the appropriate sentence is one which exceeds the magistrates'
court's powers. This procedure is possible under various provisions covering different situations. The Crown Court may
exercise its full sentencing powers in dealing with the defendant (subject to limitations applicable to particular pieces of

In sentencing a defendant so committed, the Crown Court will sit as a bench comprising a judge and between two and four
magistrates. Where the committal is from the Youth Court, the judge sits with two Youth Court magistrates, one a man and the
other a woman. No magistrate who sat below can sit on the sentencing bench.


The following routes of appeal are available in relation to criminal proceedings:

(a) Appeal to the Crown Court against conviction and/or sentence.

(b) Appeal to the High Court

(i) by way of case stated on a question of law or jurisdiction

(ii) by way of application for judicial review

A defendant may give notice of appeal to the Crown Court against his conviction in the magistrates' court (provided he pleaded
not guilty) or against his sentence, or both.

The "ordinary" appeal is set down by the Crown Court List Officer for hearing before a bench comprising a judge and between
two and four magistrates. Any magistrate who sat on the case below is precluded from sitting on the appeal.

The Crown Court will hear an appeal against conviction "de novo" (afresh) and either dismiss it or allow it (i.e. confirm the
conviction or overturn it). On an appeal against sentence, the Crown Court may allow the appeal and vary (reduce) the
sentence or dismiss the appeal and confirm the sentence. The Crown Court has the power, which is exercised only rarely, to
increase the sentence, where it thinks fit. In every appeal, the Crown Court is bound to keep within the sentencing powers of
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