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Where will my criminal case be heard?

Every criminal case has its first hearing in the magistrates court. This is regardless of whether it is a minor criminal offence such as a traffic offence, to the most serious of crimes including murder. However, at this first hearing, it will be determined whether or not the case will remain in the magistrates Court or will be moved to the Crown Court, if it is a more serious case and there needs to be greater sentencing options.

Magistrates court- summary offences

There are over 150 magistrates courts all over the country. A magistrates court has the following sentencing options:

  • Up to six months imprisonment or 12 months if there is more than one offence
  • A fine
  • A community sentence
  • A ban, for example for driving or keeping animals

The court also has the possibility of giving a combination of sentences- so they can, for example, make the defendant pay a fine as well as complete community service.

The limit to the time of imprisonment means that the magistrates court does not deal with serious offences that would result in higher sentences. Summary only offences always remain at the magistrates court and there is not the option for the defendant or the court to decide that the Crown Court should hear the case instead.

Examples of summary only offences include:

  • Most motoring offences, except for the most serious types
  • Minor criminal damage
  • Common assault involving minor injury

In a magistrates court there is not a jury and instead cases are either heard by:

  • A district judge
  • Three magistrates

They are supported by a legal advisor.


Crown Court

Trials heard in a Crown Court will have a judge as well as a jury consisting of 12 members of the public. They will listen to the evidence and decide whether or not the defendant is guilty of the offence. It is up to the judge to then pass sentence where a defendant is found or pleads guilty. Trials at the Crown Court are generally a lot lengthier than those at the magistrates court.

Either-way offences

For cases that are more serious, there is the option for them to either remain at the magistrates court or to be transferred instead at the Crown Court. These are known as either-way offences. The types of offences that are either-way include:

  • Theft

  • Burglary
  • Affray
  • Assault occasioning actual bodily harm
  • Possession of drugs
  • Possession of drugs with intent to supply drugs

As stated above, these cases will still start in the magistrates court, where the defendant will be asked to indicate their plea. The court will hear the facts of the case and depending on the plea will decide whether the case needs to be allocated to the Crown Court for trial or sentencing. The magistrates court has to consider the complexity of the case as well as following the Sentencing Councils allocation guidelines. The starting point for either-way offences is that it should be tried summarily unless certain situations apply

If the magistrates court decides on the fact that they do not have sufficient sentencing power, then they will decline jurisdiction and the case will be transferred to the Crown Court. Where the magistrates court decides that they do have sufficient sentencing powers then they will state that the case can remain in the magistrates court. However, as this point the defendant is given the option of electing the Crown Court.

The decision as to whether or not the case should remain in the magistrates court or if a defendant should elect for it to go to the Crown Court is a complicated one that requires specialist knowledge of the consequences of such a decision.

Indictable only offence

The most serious criminal cases can only be dealt with by the Crown Court. These are known as indictable offences, and example include:

  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Robbery
  • Rape

For these cases, the defendant will appear before the magistrates court for their first hearing but the case will be immediately sent to the Crown Court.

Youth courts

For defendants that are aged between 10 and 17, the case will start in a youth court rather than a magistrates court. Again there will be either three magistrates or a district judge. Sentencing in this court can be very different since it is designed specifically for young offenders. For very serious cases, the youth court is able to pass the case to the Crown Court to be dealt with.

Where a child is charged jointly with an adult then the court has to decide whether they will both be dealt with together or if the child should remain in the youth court, which is generally regarded as the proper venue in relation to any young defendant.

The information on this website is intended as a guide and does not constitute legal advice. Vardags do not accept liability for any errors in the information on this website, nor any losses stemming from reliance upon the statements made herein. All articles and pages aim to reflect the legal position at time they were published, and may have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in the law. Should you require specialist advice, tailored to your situation, please see how Vardags can help you.

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