All criminal cases are first heard at the Magistrates Court and will only be transferred to a Crown Court if they are deemed serious.
There are 3 basic types of case:
- Summary offences, such as drunk and disorderly, minor criminal damage etc and these are usually dealt with at the Magistrates court.
- Offences such as theft, certain drug offences or higher value criminal damage can be dealt with either by Magistrates or at the Crown Court.
- Indictable only offences, such as murder or rape can only be dealt with at the Crown Court although they start off at the Magistrates Court.
The Magistrates Court will be run by either a Magistrate or a District Judge, and at the Crown Court your case will be heard by a Judge or a Judge and a Jury. A Magistrate is a member of the general public who has undergone some limited training and is advised on legal matters by a court officer (The Clerk of the Court), where as a Judge is legally qualified as a solicitor or a barrister.
Don’t be late for you case! It will have been “listed” as either a morning or afternoon but check with the court to find out when and be there in good time. It is not like the doctors with a first come first served approach, it depends on whether all the paperwork etc for your case is on hand and if any witness etc has turned up. Before you get into the court building you will be searched , rather like an airport security check, so leave plenty of time for the inevitable delays. When you get there find the court “Usher” and tell them you have arrived.
It isn’t necessary to wear a suit at court, but do dress with common sense and respect for the occasion. There are certain items which cannot be taken into court buildings. These include recording equipment such as cameras and video cameras. Mobile phones and pagers are allowed into the court room itself but should be switched off or on silent and should not be used at any time.
The court room itself is usually quite imposing. If is a Magistrates Court there will usually be 3 Magistrates, and they decided if you are guilty or not and pass sentence as appropriate. They can only give a sentence of a maximum of 12 months and are advised on legal matters by the Clerk to the Court. A Judge, who will only wear wig and robes in a Crown Court sits on his own.
If it is a Crown Court there will be a jury of 12 people selected at random from the general public. These people will have no prior knowledge of the case, or any connection to anybody involved in it. There will also be a few other people in court, a note take if it is Crown Court, somebody from Probation, along with the prosecution lawyers and your defense team. The Court Usher will wear a black robe and act as the “organizer” of the proceedings, getting people into the right seats and taking oaths etc.
Adult court are open to the general public unless the court has specifically restricted it. Anyone over the age of 14 can attend court to observe providing they do not disturb court proceedings in any way. The public are not permitted to attend Youth Court hearings.