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Starting Out: The Magistrates' Court

5 March 2022
Magistrates' Court

How does the Magistrates' Court work?

The first thing to say in any Magistrates' Court guide is that this is the court people first have to go to when they are facing a criminal case. A criminal case can start in one of two ways:

  • the first is by a court summons, which is a letter that is sent to the accused person's home address

  • the second way is by a person being charged with an offence at the police station and being either let out on bail until they have to attend court or kept in a cell overnight until being brought to court

After the first hearing, the most serious cases are transferred over to the Crown Court. These are cases involving so called ‘ indictable only' offences. Indictable only means that these cases can only be dealt with in the Crown Court. Examples of these offences include murderrobberyblackmail and many sexual offences.

What offences can be dealt with in the Magistrates' Court?

The Magistrates' Court has the power to deal with two categories of offences:

  • The first category of offence is called a ‘summary only offence' and these offences can only be dealt with in the Magistrates' Court. These are usually the most minor of offences. Examples of summary offences include common assault and most driving offences.

  • The second category of offences that can be dealt with in the Magistrates' Court are called ‘either way' offences. These offences include medium-level seriousness cases like theft, burglary and ABH assault (actual bodily harm). These ‘either way' offences can also be dealt with in the Crown Court.

What happens at the first hearing in the Magistrates' Court?

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.

Indictable only offences ( more serious offences)

Hearings for indictable only offences are typically very short and straightforward hearings. First and foremost, the Magistrates' Court has no choice but to send these cases to the Crown Court. The defendant will be provided with a date for a 'Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing' at the Crown Court. This is usually 4 to 5 weeks after the date of the Magistrates' Court appearance. After this, the Court will then go on to consider bail ahead of the next hearing. Magistrates' Court solicitors will often have to make a bail application if a Defendant is appearing before the court while being held in custody. Where a Defendant is appearing before the Court having received a summons, or having been granted bail by the police after charge, continued bail will normally be a formality, providing there have not been any breaches of any bail conditions.

Summary only offences ( less serious offences)

If the individual is facing a summary only offence the clerk will read out the charge and ask whether he/she pleads guilty or not guilty.

If he/she pleads not guilty the case will be adjourned for the trial. The trial does not take place on the first day. The trial is delayed to give the prosecution time to arrange for their witnesses to come to court. The accused person may also require time to arrange for their witnesses to come to court and to prepare their case for trial.

If the individual pleads guilty, then the court will often give the sentence ( whether it is a fine, or a more serious sentencethe same day.

Either way offences (mid-level seriousness)

Even a basic Magistrates' Court guide such as this should explain that this court can also used as a transit court for mid-level offences, also called either way offences, and also for the most serious offences. If a person is facing an ‘ either way' offence, the court will ask him or her to say what he or she pleads.

The individual can say guilty, not guilty, or refuse to say a plea at this time. If he or she says guilty, the court will hear from the prosecution and the defence lawyer and decide whether they can sentence the individual. The Magistrates' Court can only give a maximum of 12 months in prison ( 6 months for only one offence). If they think this is not enough for the offence( s), they can send the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

If the accused person has said he or she is not guilty or decided not to say what their plea is, the court will hear the opinions of the prosecutor and Magistrates' Court solicitors as to where the trial should take place ( the Crown Court or Magistrates' Court ). At this stage the court has two options; to refuse the case if it is too serious to be dealt with in the Magistrates' Court and send it to the Crown Court, or to accept dealing with the case.

If they decide to deal with the case, the accused person will then be asked where they would like the case to be heard; either in the Magistrates' Court or in the Crown Court. This means that the defendant ( the accused person) can always decide for an ‘ either way' offence to be dealt with in the Crown Court if they wish.

There are advantages and disadvantages to having a trial in the Crown Court or Magistrates' Court and a person should always speak to Magistrates' court solicitors before making that decision. The main advantage of a trial in the Crown Court is that the number of people found not guilty is higher, as a jury ( 12 members of the public) will hear the evidence in the case, and juries are usually considered more likely to believe a defendant than Magistrates' Judges. In the Magistrates' Court, the evidence is heard by either 3 or 2 lay judges ( unqualified lawyers) or by a single district judge ( a qualified lawyer). Both lay judges and district judges regularly sit in court. However, in the Crown Court, a jury member will most likely have never been to court before or heard a criminal case. It is sometimes said that lay judges and district judges are cynical in their approach to the evidence due to the number of trials that they hear.

What happens in a Magistrates' Court Trial?

The trial starts with the prosecution summarising the case against the defendant. This usually takes a period of a few minutes. This is not the same as evidence but it is the prosecutor's opportunity to ‘ set the scene' before calling their witnesses.

The prosecution will then call their witnesses. The witnesses will have already provided witness statements, however, those statements are not evidence unless both the Magistrates' court solicitor and the prosecution agree that they are accurate. If what the witness has said in his or her statement is not agreed then the witness must give evidence in person in court.

Before coming into court, the witnesses will be able to read their witness statements. The court usher will call the witness into court when it is their turn to give evidence. The prosecutor will then ask the witness questions. Their answers are the evidence in the case and they have to swear an oath to tell the truth in court before starting.

Quite often, the evidence that witnesses give in court is different to the account that they gave in their statement. The witnesses may be ‘ cross examined' about their evidence by the Magistrates' Court solicitor. This is the dramatic and sometimes aggressive questioning that people associate with witness evidence in court. The Magistrates' Court solicitor will also put the defendant's case to the witness in cross-examination.

After the prosecution have called all their witnesses, they will say that their case is closed.

It is then the defence lawyer's turn to put the defendant's case. It may be that having heard all the evidence in the case, the defence lawyer believes that the prosecution have not brought enough evidence to court to show that the offence took place. If this is the case, the defence lawyer may argue that ‘ there is no case to answer'. In general it is legal points that are raised at this stage rather than attacking the believability of the witnesses' evidence. If the court agrees with this argument, then the case will be stopped and a not-guilty verdict entered. If, however, the court believes that there is evidence, then the case will continue and the defence will have to make their case.

The defendant ( who is the accused person) is the first person to give evidence for the defence case. Any defence witnesses will give evidence after him/her. They may be witnesses who saw or heard the incident or they may be ‘ character witnesses.' If the defendant has no previous convictions then he may bring witnesses to court to give evidence as to his character to show the court that he or she is not the type of person who would commit the offence. This is a very important part of the defence of anyone with no previous convictions (see section on representation of people with no previous convictions).

After calling all the witnesses, the defence lawyer will then address the bench ( the judges) in the form of ‘ a closing speech.' In this speech he or she will highlight all the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, summarise the defendant's case and build an argument to persuade the court that their client is not guilty.

After hearing from the defence lawyer, the judge or judges will then retire to consider their verdict.

Sentencing in the Magistrates' Court

There are a number of sentences that can be imposed in the Magistrates' Court. We have included some of the more common types in this Magistrates' court guide below.

Committal to the Crown Court for Sentence

If the defendant indicates a guilty plea, pleads guilty or is found guilty of an offence that could have been heard in the Crown Court ( an either way offence) the Magistrates can commit ( this means send) the case to Crown Court for sentence if they feel they do not have power to sentence the offence for long enough ( given that the maximum for one offence in the Magistrates' is 6 months).

Custodial Sentence

A custodial sentence is a prison sentence. If the Magistrates are considering a prison sentence they will normally request that a report be prepared about the defendant to assist them in making their decision. Normally the case is adjourned to another date for the report to be prepared. The length of the adjournment will be dependant on how quickly the report can be prepared. The reports do not have to be in writing.

The minimum custodial sentence is five days. The maximum sentence is 6 months for one offence. However, there is a power to impose 12 months if the accused is being sentenced for two or more offences.

Suspended Sentences

If the Magistrates impose a term of imprisonment between 14 days and six months they may suspend the sentence for between 6 months and two years ( the operational period). When a sentence is suspended the Magistrates may impose one or more requirements to be undertaken by the defendant in the community. These requirements are similar to Community Orders ( see below for more detail). If the defendant fails to comply with the requirements or commits another offence during the relevant period, the Magistrates can activate the suspended sentence.

Community Orders

Community Orders are sentences within the community designed either to punish, to rehabilitate or to ensure reparation. Community Orders can require the defendant to do unpaid work, take treatment for drugs, alcohol, or be supervised by the Probation Service, among other requirements.


The Magistrates can impose a fine. The size of the fine will depend on the seriousness of the offence to be sentenced and an individual's ability to pay.


The Magistrates must consider making an order for compensation in any case where there has been personal injury, loss or damage as a result of the offence that is being sentenced.


If the Magistrates feel having regard to the nature of the offence and the character of the defendant that it is appropriate not to impose a punishment they can order either an absolute or a conditional discharge. If an absolute discharge is imposed that is the end of the matter. If they order a conditional discharge then no punishment will be imposed if the defendant does not commit another offence during the period of the discharge. A conditional discharge can be for up to three years.

Further orders the court can make

The court can make further orders where appropriate. These include anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), confiscation orders, disqualifications from the ownership of animals, disqualifications from driving. football banning orders, forfeiture and destruction of drugs. restraining orders or sexual offence prevention orders, among others.

When sentencing, the Magistrates must consider the Magistrates' Court Sentencing Guidelines which can be found online. It is possible for Magistrates to go outside of the guidelines but they must provide their reasoning if they choose to do so.


There is an automatic right to appeal against a sentence or conviction from the Magistrates' Court, however, the appeal must be lodged within 21 days of being sentenced, unless there is a good reason why it wasn't, for example, if the person was not advised on rights to appeal within the 21 days.

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