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Understanding the UK criminal trial process (Part 2)

Inside the courtroom

Following an arrest, if the police do decide to push the case to trial, the first step is the Magistrate’s Court. Depending on the type of offence, severity of offence, and other factors, the magistrates may either choose to hear the case, or forward the case to the Crown Court. The Crown Court has the authority to try serious offences, pass harsher sentences, and allows a jury to be on the trial. In the magistrate’s court, however, the magistrates act as judge and jury.

Magistrate’s court

The first hearing takes place in the magistrate’s court. All criminal cases are heard through the magistrate’s court, and it is up to them to decide whether the case should be taken forward to Crown Court, or can be tried within the magistrate’s court.

The magistrate’s court has limited jurisdiction in terms of the sentences they can give – the maximum punishment they can levy is up to 6 months in prison (12 If there’s more than one offence), a fine, community service, or a ban.

This means that magistrates deal with summary-only offences – which are minor offences that are less serious. Offences like driving offences, simple assault, and theft are a few examples.

Either-way offences could go either-way – either as summary-only offences, or as indictable offences (which are far more serious and are tried in the Crown Court).

Since it’s up to the magistrates to decide, this is the first trial your lawyer will go through. Depending on the situation, your lawyer might advocate for a trial at the Crown Court, or might bargain down to a lesser sentence based on your involvement during the offence. As there is no jury at the magistrate’s court, the magistrates are the ones who decide.

The magistrate’s court will also review your bail –and decide whether to extend your bail, or to keep you in custody. They’ll look at factors like whether you’ve been following bail conditions and whether you’ve committed a crime before.

Crown court trial proceedings

PTPH (Plea and trial preparation hearing)

This is the first hearing that you will attend after your case has been sent to the Crown Court. During this hearing, a Crown Court Clerk will read out the list of offences the defendant has been charged with (also known as indictment), and the defendant has the option to plead guilty, or not guilty.

If the defendant pleads guilty, then the judge can either choose to pass a sentence immediately, or postpone the sentencing to ask for more information, and decide on an adequate sentence.
This will also include the probation service submitting a ‘pre-sentence report’, which assesses the defendant for any risks they might pose.

Opting for a guilty plea early does have a benefit – to encourage people to ‘confess’, and avoid wasting the court’s time and resources, there is a sentence reduction based on how early a guilty plea is submitted. The maximum level of sentence reduction for a guilty plea is one-third. The goal is to encourage offenders to accept their mistakes, and to avoid an unnecessary trial that will ultimately result in a guilty verdict.

After that, it’s a sliding scale, with the minimum reduction being one-tenth – and once the trials begin, and you submit a guilty plea, there is no sentence reduction.

Presentation of defence and prosecution arguments

Now is when the actual trial starts – beginning with the prosecution’s opening statements. This is essentially a quick summary of the charges, what the case is, and what the defence is, to focus on key issues in dispute. It’s an outline of the evidence the prosecution will use. By the end of the opening statement, the prosecution will hand out the indictment sheet to the members of the jury.

If the defence team has at least one defence witness to present, then the defence will also present an opening statement.

If not, the defence can submit a statement of issues after the prosecution’s opening statement – highlighting the issues in the case, and help the jury focus on which matters are in disbute
The trial continues with the defence team presenting their evidence and calling witnesses first, and the prosecution has the opportunity to cross-examine any evidence the defence team submits.

Jury deliberation and verdict

Once the prosecution and defence have submitted their evidence and given closing statements, the jury is then taken to a separate, private room to deliberate on the outcome. There is no time limit, and the jury is not placed under any pressure. A majority is required for a verdict to be passed, so a minimum of 10 jurors must agree to a decision. For serious offences like rape and murder, the judge may ask for a unanimous verdict, where all 12 jurors agree. 

During the deliberation period, the jury cannot ask for extra evidence, but can ask for clarification – either on a legal term, or on the evidence already submitted.

Once a decision is reached, the jury’s decision is final, and they cannot be influenced by anyone.

If the jury has decided that the defendant is guilty, the judge is responsible for passing down a sentence – be it prison time, a rehabilitation order, a fine, or a combination of various sentences. However, defendant’s can appeal the decision – either they can appeal the conviction itself, or appeal the sentence, if they feel the sentence is too harsh.

To know more about sentences and appeals, check out the third article in this series.

Article written and contributed by: Stuart Miller Solicitors

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances, and is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered in this article, get in touch with Stuart Miller Solicitors direct

Published on 19th June 2023
(Last updated 19th June 2023)

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