England and Wales
Which court will my family member go to?
Which court your relative gets tried in depends on the nature of the alleged offence. All criminal cases start off with a hearing in a local Magistrates Court with the most serious being referred on to a Crown Court for a full trial with a judge and jury. If the defendant is aged under 18 they will be tried in a youth court, 18 – 21 year olds are still treated as ‘young defendants’ but are tried in the adult courts.
Criminal cases fall into three categories:
- 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. These are generally held in Magistrates’ Courts.
- Either way offences – offences such as theft, burglary, drugs offences, or higher value criminal damage, can be dealt with either by a Magistrates Court or at the Crown Court. 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 – serious offences such as murder, rape and robbery can only be dealt with at the Crown Court. The first hearing will occur at the Magistrates Court – in many cases this will be through a video-link to a prison whilst the accused person is on remand.
The Magistrates Court is the lowest level of court – all criminal cases will come before a Magistrates Court for trial or referral to a higher court. At the Magistrates Court the case may be heard by either two or three Magistrates or a District Judge. In a Magistrates’ Court a defendant’s guilt and subsequent sentence is decided by the Magistrates or a District Judge. There isn’t a jury in a Magistrates Court.
Crown Courts deal with serious criminal cases which include:
- Cases sent for trial by Magistrates’ Courts because the offences are ‘indictable only’ (i.e. those which can only be heard by the Crown Court)
- ‘Either way’ offences (which can be heard in a Magistrates’ Court, but can also be sent to the Crown Court if the defendant chooses a jury trial)
- Defendants convicted in magistrates’ courts, but sent to the Crown Court for sentencing due to the seriousness of the offence
- Appeals against decisions of Magistrates’ Courts.
At the Crown Court the case will be heard before a judge and jury. The jury is made up of twelve people who know nothing about the trial before they come to court. It is their job to listen to all the evidence presented and to decide whether or not the accused is guilty. The judge will then decide the punishment for the offence. A defendant charged with an ‘either way’ offence may chose to have their case heard in a Crown Court before a jury if they wish.
What is the difference between a Magistrate and a Judge?
Magistrates are trained volunteers from all walks of life. They are not required to have any legal training and are assisted in court by a legal adviser. Magistrates generally sit in ‘panels’ of two or three. All members of the panel have equal decision-making powers but only one member, the chairman, speaks in court and presides over proceedings.
Magistrates cannot normally send people to prison for periods of time over six months (or 12 months for consecutive sentences). The upper limit of the fine they could impose used to be £5,000 but from 12 March 2015 there is now no cap on the fine a magistrate can impose. Magistrates can also impose a community sentence, like doing unpaid work in the community, and can also give a combination of punishments – e.g. a fine and unpaid work in the community. If the court decides the sentence should be for longer than 6 months, it can pass the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.
District judges may also hear cases in a Magistrates Court. They usually deal with the longer and more complex matters coming before the Magistrates Courts.
Judges working at Crown Courts or as District Judges at the Magistrates Court are legally qualified either as barristers or solicitors and work full-time as judges. As a result a Judge can sit alone but there will usually be a legal adviser present to assist where necessary. A Judge will normally wear a gown and wig in a Crown Court.
A young defendant aged between 10 and 17 will be dealt with in the youth courts. Young defendants that are aged between 10 and 13 are classified as children and 14 – 17 year olds are termed as young persons, or juveniles.
Children under the age of 10 are viewed as being below the age of criminal responsibility and will not be taken to court. Instead they may become the subject of civil care or supervision proceedings such as child safety or child curfew orders or made a ward of court. If the child or young person commits an offence that would warrant a sentence of 14 years or more had they been tried as an adult then the case will be heard at the Crown Court.
Youth Courts are part of the Magistrates Courts and are used to hear cases of those who aged 11-18 years old. Magistrates serving in a Youth Court will have had specific training to enable them to deal with young people effectively. This will include using language that is easier for young people to understand. Youth Courts are usually laid out differently to adult courts being smaller and less formal. Only the child’s parent or guardian will be allowed in the court to accompany the child, the general public are not permitted in the court room. If the child or young person is under the age of 16 then their parent or carer must be in attendance.
Find the court address
The Court finder website has a full listing and detailed information on all courts in England and Wales.
There are four courts which can hear criminal cases in Scotland.
The High Court hears the most serious cases including all cases of rape and murder. There are no limits on the length of prison sentences, or the amount of any fine the High Court may impose.
The Sheriff Court can hear all other criminal cases. These cases are dealt with by solemn procedure or summary procedure. In solemn procedure, the court can sentence an accused to a period of up to five years in prison or impose a fine of any amount. In summary procedure, the court can sentence an accused to a maximum period of twelve months and the maximum fine is £10,000.
There is one Stipendiary Magistrate’s court in Scotland, in Glasgow. The stipendiary magistrate can sentence an accused to a period of up to one year in prison and the maximum fine the court can impose is £10,000.
The Justice of the Peace Court hears minor summary cases. The Justice of the Peace can sentence an accused to a period of up to sixty days in prison or impose a fine of up to £2500.
The Procurator Fiscal decides which court the case will be heard in. Generally cases in the sheriff court, Justice of the Peace Court or the stipendiary magistrates court are held in the court closest to where the crime was committed. High Court cases are generally heard in the High Court buildings in Edinburgh or Glasgow or within dedicated premises at Aberdeen. In practice the High Court may also sit in a suitable sheriff court building in a town or city near where the crime happened.
For more information about the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland please visit: www.copfs.gov.uk.
This page was updated on November 2018