There are three different types of courts that deal with criminal offences: Magistrates’ Courts; Crown Courts; the Appeal Court. Magistrates’ courts deal with the majority of cases and can sentence offenders to prison for up to six months, impose community penalties or fines up to a certain level. The Crown Court does not have limits on the sentences it can impose, so it tends to hearthe more serious cases including charges which can only be dealt with at the Crown Court – such as murder, rape, armed robbery. If defendants feel that their conviction at the Crown Court was wrong or the sentence was too harsh, they can appeal against it in the Appeal Court.
Magistrates’ courts deal with a wide variety of crime from motoring offences to assaults, environmental crime to false trade descriptions, dangerous dogs to malicious communications, and much more.
Magistrates can sentence an offender to prison for up to six months, impose community penalties, fine up to £5,000 (higher for some health and safety and environmental offences), or decide to discharge a defendant absolutely or under conditions.
Cases in the Magistrates Court are heard by lay (or volunteer) magistrates sitting as a group or bench of three or occasionally in some busy inner city courts by a professional District Judge (Magistrates’ Court). Once the offender has either pleaded guilty or been found guilty after a trial has taken place the magistrates have to decide what to do. This is usually done in their Retiring Room, in private.
Magistrates are trained to follow a structured decision making process. They use the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines and sometimes Court of Appeal decisions to help them reach the right decision. A version of the decision making process is used in the ‘Judge for Yourself’ section of this website.
When considering the nature of the offence magistrates will decide if there are circumstances which make the crime seem worse (aggravating factors) or less serious (mitigating factors). They will also consider if there is a threat to the public from the offender.
The response will be dictated by what sentences are available in relation to the crime. Magistrates may feel a heavier sentence than they are able to give is appropriate and so decide to send the case to the Crown Court (see below).
There may be factors related to the offender which will affect the decision making process, such as the mental health of the offender, their risk to the public, their motivation for committing the offence, or previous convictions.
Magistrates will try to decide on a sentence which they feel fits in with the proportion of the offence, so that violent crimes are treated more severely than traffic offences for example. They will also determine if compensation should be paid by the offender, or if non-criminal restrictions should be imposed, such as removing a driving licence.
The Crown Court hears the most serious crimes, known as ’indictable’ offences – such as murder, rape, armed robbery, and ‘triable-either-way’ offences which can be heard in the Magistrates’ or Crown Court.
If the defendant pleads Not Guilty the trial involves a jury made up of 12 members of the public. If they decide a defendant is guilty then the judge who conducts the trial will decide on the sentence. Members of the jury are picked in order for the jury to be as representative of wide society as possible. This means accounting for gender, ethnicity, religion, class etc.The Judges are all legally qualified and have specialist knowledge of criminal law.
Judges will take into account the sorts of factors that magistrates do – whether the person has previous convictions (which would encourage a heavier sentence), and mitigating factors – such as whether the person had hit out in self-defence, reports from medical or other experts and so forth.
The sentence will be based – as in the Magistrates’ Courts – on a number of factors. One factor will be Acts of Parliament – for example legislation makes murder an offence that always carries a sentence of life imprisonment. Another factor will be practice directions and case law handed down by the Court of Appeal-guidance by the most senior judges.
Although Judges have the power to impose heavy sentences, they will also make the same use as magistrates of other penalties – community service, fines or requiring people to take a course of action (such as attend a drug rehabilitation programme) as a condition for their not facing a different punishment.
If someone feels they have been wrongly convicted or have been given too harsh a sentence they can appeal their case. If they are appealing against a Magistrates Court decision the case is heard at the Crown Court, if the appeal is against a Crown Court decision it is heard at the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal can make any of the following decisions:
A very small number of cases go from the Court of Appeal to Britain’s highest appeal court, the House of Lords.
Only a small minority of trials are ’trial by jury’; over 90% of cases are tried in a Magistrate’s court, where the sentence is usually decided by the bench of Magistrates.
Magistrates are not paid legal professionals; they are specially trained members of the public who give up their spare time to hear cases.