Magistrates court is the first level of court people must attend if facing a criminal case. They may have received a court summons (a letter sent to the accused summoning them to appear in court) or they have been charged with an offence at the police station. They will either be released and bailed until they have to attend court or kept in a cell overnight and brought to court in the morning.
What is a Magistrates’ Court?
After the first hearing in the magistrates’ court, the most serious cases are transferred over to the crown court. These usually involve ‘indictable only’ offences which can only be heard in crown court and include offences such as murder, robbery, blackmail and sexual offences.
What offences are dealt with in the magistrates’ court?
The magistrates’ court has the power to deal with two categories of offences:
- the first category are called ‘summary only’ offences and can only be dealt with in the magistrates’ court and include most minor offences such as common assault and driving offences
- the second category are called ‘either way’ offences and are of medium-level seriousness such as theft, burglary and ABH (actual bodily harm) assault (these ‘either way’ offences can also be dealt with in the Crown Court depending on their seriousness)
In general, cases in the magistrates’ court are dealt with in public; at the first hearing the court clerk will ask the accused to confirm their name and address. What happens next depends on the type of offence that the individual is facing.
Summary only offences (i.e. only in the magistrates’ court)
If the individual is facing a summary only offence the clerk will read out the charge and ask whether the accused pleads guilty or not guilty. If they plead not guilty the case will be adjourned for trial – the trial will not take place on the first day.
The trial is delayed to give the prosecution and defence time to arrange for their witnesses and prepare their cases for trial. If the accused pleads guilty then the court will usually give the sentence (whether it is a fine or a more serious sentence) the same day.
Either way offences
If the allegations against the accused are an ‘either way’ offence then the court will ask them to make their plea; which can be either guilty, not guilt or they can refuse to enter a plea at this time. If the accused enters a ‘guilty’ plea, the court will ask to hear from the prosecution and the defence lawyer and then determine whether they have the authority to sentence the individual. The magistrates’ court can only sentence the convicted to a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison (or just 6 months for a single offence). If they think a stronger sentence is called for they can send the case to the crown court for sentencing.
If the accused has entered a not guilty plea, or has refused to enter a plea, the court will hear the arguments from the prosecution and defence solicitors as top where the trial should be heard – magistrates’ court or crown court. The magistrates’ court will either refuse the case on the grounds that it is too serious or it will agree to hear the case. The accused then has the opportunity to express their preference if they haven’t already been sent up to crown court. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and advice from a solicitor is critical to making an informed decision.
Sentencing in the magistrates’s court
Below are listed some of the more common sentences which can be given at magistrates’ court:
- committal to the crown court for sentencing – if the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty of an ‘either way’ offence the magistrates can commit (send) the case to crown court for sentencing if they feel the offence warrants a longer sentence than they can impose
- custodial sentencing – or a prison sentence; minimum custodial sentence is five days, the maximum sentence is six months for one offence or 12 months for multiple offences
- suspended sentence – if magistrates impose a term of between 14 days and six months imprisonment they may suspend the sentence for between 6 months and two years; one or more requirements are imposed on the defendant during the period (similar to community orders); should the defendant fail to comply or commit another offence the magistrates can activate the suspended sentence
- community orders – community-based sentences intended to punish, rehabilitate or ensure reparation; can require the defendant to do unpaid work, take treatment for drugs, alcohol, or be supervised by the probation service
- fines – the size of the fine will depend on the seriousness of the offence to be sentenced and an individual’s ability to pay
- compensation – the magistrates must consider compensation in any case where there has been personal injury, loss or damage as a result of the offence
- discharge – if the magistrates feel, considering the offence and the character of the defendant, that it would be appropriate to not impose a punishment they can order an absolute or a conditional discharge; an absolute discharge is an end to the matter; if they order a conditional discharge then no punishment will be imposed so long as the defendant does not offend again during the period of the discharge (up to three years)
Further orders the court can make
The court can make further orders where appropriate including:
- anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs)
- confiscation orders
- disqualifications from owning animals
- disqualifications from driving
- football banning orders
- forfeiture and destruction of drugs
- restraining orders
- sexual offence prevention orders
There is an automatic right to appeal against a sentence or conviction from the magistrates’ court so long as it is filed within 21 days of being sentenced.
If you think you, or a friend or family member, may have to face the magistrates’ court, AFG LAW can assist you. Please ring 01204 377600 to speak to one of our expert criminal law solicitors who can advise you and attend court.