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Guide To Criminal Law

What is criminal law? Criminal law is law which involves the state (or The Crown) bringing a prosecution against an individual. Only crimes (or offences) which already exist in law can be used to prosecute people. These are laid down by Parliamentary Law or by previous decided case history in the courts (common law).


To convict someone of a crime, the prosecution has to show the court ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the accused has committed the offence to a very high level of certainty. Judges evaluate guilt based on the requirement of ‘you must be satisfied so that you are sure’. As far as the criminal courts are concerned, ‘not sure’ is ‘not guilty’.

What are the two levels of criminal court?

There are two levels of court; the magistrates’ court and crown court. Magistrates’ court deals with less serious offences, such as most motoring offences, low value thefts and less serious assaults. However, this court can still impose prison sentences.

In the magistrates’ court, cases are dealt with by part-time judges called magistrates, or by a District Judge, who is a former lawyer. Magistrates are people from the community who become judges after basic legal training on a voluntary basis. There are no juries in magistrates’ court; the magistrates or district judge will determine guilt. This means that for less serious cases there is no right to ‘trial by jury’.

In the crown court, a jury must find the defendant guilty or not guilty by unanimous vote; a majority not enough. If the jury cannot come to a unanimous verdict a judge might accept a 10 of 12 majority verdict. If no verdict can be reached a re-trial may be ordered.

What must the prosecution prove in order to convict someone?

The prosecution must prove that someone has committed an illegal act and that the accused meant to commit the act in question. They must prove that the accused committed the offence, knowing it was wrong, and that it was done on purpose or with intent.

The accused may be able to avoid a conviction if they have a reasonable defence or a good reason why they shouldn’t be convicted. Below are some examples of defences against prosecution:

  • Self defence / defence of someone else / defence of property etc. – if someone commits an act of violence (such as assault) to prevent being injured, prevent someone else being injured or to protect their property then they may be entitled to a defence against prosecution; the force used must be necessary and reasonable (or proportionate) and there must not have been any other obvious alternative
  • automatism – when the act has been done unconsciously and involuntarily or ‘done by the muscles without any conscious control by the mind’; there must be a total loss of control of the body and it cannot be self-induced, so alcohol related blackouts don’t count
  • diminished responsibility – a partial defence to murder only; it can reduce murder to manslaughter if the defendant can prove they were suffering from an ‘abnormality of mind’ which substantially impaired their responsibility for the killing
  • provocation – a partial defence to murder but not any other offence; the defendant must have been provoked, leading to a loss of control; the provocation must be enough to make a reasonable person react in that way

If you think you, or a friend or family member, may have to face action in the criminal court justice system, remember AFG LAW can assist you. Please ring 01204 377600 to speak to one of our expert criminal court solicitors who can advise you and attend court.

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