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Magistrates Courts – how they operate

Virtually all-criminal cases start in the Magistrates courts.

The less serious offences are handled entirely in the magistrates court.

Over 95% of all cases are dealt with in this way. The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, to be dealt with by 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 entitled to trial by jury.
  • Either-way offences. As the name implies, these can be dealt with either by the magistrates or before a judge and jury at the Crown Court.
  • Such offences include theft and handling stolen goods.

A suspect can insist on their right to trial in the Crown Court. Similarly, magistrates can decide that a case is sufficiently serious that it should be dealt with in the Crown Court – which can impose tougher punishments.

Indictable – only offences, such as:

These must be heard at a Crown Court.

If the case is an indictable only offence, the involvement of the Magistrates Court is brief. A decision will be made on whether to grant bail and other legal issues, like reporting restrictions, will be considered.

The case will then be passed to the Crown Court.

If the case is to be dealt with in the Magistrates Court, the defendant will have to enter a plea.

If they plead guilty or if they are later found to be guilty, the magistrates can impose a sentence of up to six months imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000.
If the defendant is found not guilty (if they are acquitted), they are judged innocent in the eyes of the law and should be free to go – provided there are no other cases against them outstanding.

Cases are heard either by three lay magistrates or one District Judge.
The lay magistrates, or Justices of the Peace, as they are also known, are local people who volunteer their services.
They don’t have formal legal qualifications, but are given legal and procedural advice by qualified clerks.
District Judges are legally qualified, paid, full-time professionals and are usually based in the larger cities.

By Andria Greaves, e-mail

To see an article about a case at Brent Magistrates court, click here


November 14, 2008 Posted by | Andria - Home Current Affairs | , , , , | 1 Comment