A guide to the courts
Courts can be intimidating places
The British legal system has been around for a long time and is widely respected around the world. But it's also complicated – particularly for anyone who's never come into contact with it before. You can find out more directly from the agencies involved.
Some basic information to get you started
All criminal proceedings involving adults begin in the magistrates' court. Whether they end there or are sent on to the Crown Court depends on how serious the crime is. Only contested trials in the Crown Court involve a jury.
Where the defendant is under the age of 18, then the case will normally be heard in the youth court – unless it's a murder or manslaughter case when it will automatically be sent for trial in the Crown Court.
Other serious crimes carried out by youths, such as rape and aggravated burglary, may be sent to the Crown Court for trial, depending on the age of the defendant and the nature of the offence. Hearings in the Youth Court are not open to the public.
The judge is responsible for overseeing the hearing, ruling on points of law and ensuring that the defendant gets a fair trial. Where the defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, the Judge will pass a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime and takes into account the defendants personal circumstances including such matters as whether he or she has previously been convicted of any similar offences.
There are 12 members of the public on the jury. After listening to all the evidence presented during the trial in the Crown Court and any direction that the judge may give them, they make a decision on whether the defendant is guilty of the charge or charges. Where they are unable to agree on a unanimous verdict, they all agree on the guilt or innocence of the accused, they may be asked by the Judge to pass a majority verdict where 10 or more jurors agree on a verdict.
Magistrates are also referred to as Justices of the Peace and they are people who live in the local community that have been selected and trained to sit in judgement on cases heard in the Magistrates Court. They may also sit alongside a Judge in the Crown Court on certain hearings.
In the Magistrates Court there are normally three magistrates who are supported by a legally trained advisor. Sometimes cases are tried by one magistrate, who is a lawyer. They are called a District Judge. Magistrates' courts tend to be less formal places than the Crown Court (e.g., the magistrates do not wear the white wigs that lawyers and Judges wear in the Crown Court).
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutes the majority of cases before the criminal courts. The CPS is an independent body and is not part of the police or the courts. The CPS prosecutes cases on behalf of the Crown and whilst it will listen to the views of victims it reaches its prosecution decision independently and will make that decision based on the available admissible evidence and public interest factors. The CPS is guided in its decision making by the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
The CPS employs lawyers who are referred to as Crown Prosecutors or Crown Advocates. They also employ Associate Prosecutors who are not lawyers but who have been given special training to present simple cases in the magistrate’s court.
In the Crown Court the CPS may prosecute the case through one of its Crown Advocates or will instruct a barrister from the local Criminal Bar to prosecute on its behalf.
The CPS is not the only prosecutor as criminal prosecutions can be brought by other government agencies and designated bodies on matters such as TV Licencing and environmental or health and safety violations.
An expert witness is usually someone such as a doctor or forensic scientist who applies the expertise in interpreting aspects of the evidence in order to support the prosecution or assist the defence case.
The accused is entitled to be legally represented in criminal proceedings either at their own expense or it they satisfy certain criteria through Legal Aid. The defence team will take instructions from the accused and provide advice on legal matters and advise on whether the accused has a viable defence based on the evidence presented by the prosecution.
Where an accused pleads guilty or is found guilty by the court or by a jury it will fall to the Magistrates or a Judge to pass the most appropriate sentence to reflect the seriousness of the offence.
The sentencing process and decision making is quite complicated and those passing sentence are assisted by sentencing guidelines which help to ensure that sentences passed for similar offences in different parts of the country are consistent and only subject to variation relating to the defendant personal circumstances and whether he or she has previously been convicted of similar criminal offences. Find out more about sentencing.
People convicted by the Crown Court can appeal to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) against their conviction and or the sentence. Permission to appeal to the Supreme Court can be applied for if the initial appeals are rejected.
People convicted by a magistrates' court can appeal against the conviction or sentence to the Crown Court where their appeal will usually be heard by a Judge sitting with two Magistrates.