A guide to the courts
Courts can be intimidating places
The British Justice 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. We've given links on the right to help you 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 here or passed on to the Crown Court depends on how serious the crime is and whether the person accused pleads guilty or not guilty. Crown Court trials are the ones that involve a jury.
If the accused is under 18 then the case will normally go to the youth court - unless it's a murder or manslaughter case when it will automatically go to the Crown Court. Other serious crimes carried out by children or young people, such as rape and aggravated burglary, may be sent to the Crown Court for trial, depending on the age of the accused and the nature of the offence. Hearings in the youth court are not open to the public.
The judge is responsible for law matters, and they also make sure the trial is fair. The judge decides the sentence for the crime if the defendant is found guilty.
There are 12 members of the public on the jury. After listening to all the evidence presented during the trial they make a decision on whether the defendant is guilty of the crime.
Magistrates are sometimes called justices of the peace, and they are usually people who live locally. 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 are less formal places than the Crown Court (for example the magistrates do not wear the white wigs that officials wear in Crown Court).
Lawyers called Crown Prosecutors and Crown Advocates prepare and prosecute the case on behalf of the Crown (ie the state). They are present in both Crown and magistrates' courts. A barrister and legal team will defend the defendant (ie the person who is accused of the crime) against the charges in court.
An expert witness uses their expertise to help the court make well-informed decisions – they will have been asked to give or prepare expert evidence for the trial.
Magistrates and judges decided what the sentence is for people found guilty of a crime but their decisions have to take into account official guidelines. There are four types of sentence. These include discharge (where the court decides that punishment would not be appropriate given the nature of the crime and the character of the offender), fines, community sentences (these combine activities designed to change offenders' behaviour and to make amends with punishment) and imprisonment.
People convicted by the Crown Court can appeal to the Court of Appeal against their conviction and the sentence. People convicted by a magistrates' court can appeal to the Crown Court. Permission to appeal to the House of Lords can be applied for if the initial appeals are rejected.
If you are the relative of a murder or manslaughter victim, you can now address the court to say how the crime has affected you. This happens after an offender is convicted and before sentence is passed. You can get help from an independent solicitor or barrister or from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).