Criminal Proceedings


Criminal Proceedings instigate the action taken in a court to bring a criminal prosecution against an individual.

Some examples of criminal proceedings include:

  • Assault; a hostile act causing another individual to fear an attack.  Common assault may be threatening someone with a weapon such as a knife or a gun.
  • Robbery; theft, or threat of theft by force.
  • Murder; the unlawful killing of another human being
  • Burglary; a person entering a property without permission, and stealing or attempting to steal.

Further information on the Criminal Court System in the UK :

Criminal Court System England and Wales

Magistrates Court

The Magistrates Court is the lowest tier of Criminal Court system in England and Wales. 95% of cases are completed in these courts.

Magistrates Courts also deal with many civil cases. The court hears all summary cases and cases which can be tried either summarily or on indictment (either-way offences) where the defendant and the court agrees that they should.

Cases in the Magistrates Court are usually heard by a panel of three Magistrates (known as Justices of the Peace, or Lay Magistrates.) These panels are made up of members of the public who are advised by a legally qualified solicitor or barrister known as a Legal Advisor to the Justices. However, some courts have District Judges who are legally qualified Magistrates who sit alone and deal with more complex or sensitive cases, for example cases arising from serious fraud.

Criminal cases involving children and young persons will be heard separately in Juvenile Courts.

Crown Court

The Crown Court deals with the most serious criminal cases such as murder and rape, as well as those ‘either-way’ cases transferred from the Magistrates’ Court. It also hears appeals against decisions of the Magistrates Court as well as cases sent for sentencing from Magistrates Courts.

Trials are heard by a Judge and a 12-person jury. The jury is directed on matters of law by the Judge but makes the decision as to guilt or innocence.
The Judge in a Crown Court will either be a High Court Judge, a Circuit Judge, or a Recorder (a part-time Judge)

Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)

The Court of Appeal, which sits in London at the Royal Courts of Justice, consists of two Divisions; The Civil Division and The Criminal Division.
The Court of Appeal is the highest court within the Supreme Court of Judicature.
The Criminal Division hears appeals from the Crown Court, and cases are generally heard by a ‘bench’ of three Judges, usually a Lord or Lady Justice and two High Court Judges.

Criminal Court System Scotland 

There are three tiers of Criminal Courts in Scotland:

  • Justice of the Peace Courts (District Courts)
  • Sheriff Courts
  • The High Court of Justiciary

There are no juvenile courts in Scotland.

Justice of the Peace Courts (District Courts)

A Justice of the Peace Court is a lay court where a Justice of the Peace who is not legally qualified sits with a legally qualified Clerk. The Clerk provides advice to the Justices on matters of law and procedure. The maximum sentence that a JP may impose is:

  • 60 days imprisonment or a fine not exceeding £2,500

In Glasgow only, some courts are presided over by a legally qualified Stipendiary Magistrate. The maximum sentence that a Stipendiary Magistrate may impose is:

  • 12 months imprisonment or a fine not exceeding £10,000

Justice of the Peace Courts were created by the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007. They replaced the former District Courts which were operated by local authorities. This change resulted from Summary Justice Reform proposals in 2005 which sought to unify the administration of Sheriff and District Courts. The changes were introduced on a Sheriffdom by Sheriffdom basis from 2008-2010.

Sheriff Courts

For legal purposes, Scotland is split into six regions (Sheriffdoms), each presided over by a Sheriff Principal who is in turn assisted by a number of Sheriffs.

Sheriff Court Criminal Cases may be brought under either Solemn or Summary Procedure. It is the responsibility of the Procurator Fiscal to decide which procedure should be followed for a particular case.

High Court of Justiciary

The High Court of Justiciary is Scotland’s supreme Criminal Court. It has jurisdiction over the whole of Scotland, and over all crimes, unless its jurisdiction is excluded by statute.  The High Court deals with the most serious crimes, and cases are presided over by a single Judge and tried by a Jury of fifteen people.

Criminal Proceedings England and Wales

In England and Wales there are two methods by which criminal proceedings may be commenced:

  • By Charging. Where the person concerned is informed verbally of the charge, cautioned that any reply may be given in evidence, and given a written copy of the charge.
  • By Information and Summons. Lodging a document known as an Information with the Court which sets out the offence of which the Defendant is accused. In response, the Court will then issue a Summons, which requires the Defendant to attend the Court at a stated time and place to admit or deny the offence.

The majority of serious matters will be started by charging.

Mode of Trial

There are two modes of trial:

Summary Trial. This takes place before magistrates in the magistrates’ court.
Trial on Indictment. This takes place before a Judge and Jury in the Crown Court. The Judge presides over the trial, ensuring fairness whilst deciding matters of law and passing sentence. The Jury decides the verdict.
Depending upon the nature of the offence, it may be tried only Summarily, only on Indictment, or either way.

Commencement, Adjournment and Remand

Unless directed by a High Court judge, all criminal proceedings in England and Wales start in a Magistrates’ Court. The Defendant will appear either on a Summons or under a Charge.

Magistrates Courts have the power to adjourn proceedings to a later time or date, and may do this by simply stating that the hearing is adjourned until a later date. Alternatively, they may remand the case. Most cases that have started with an arrest will begin in Court with a Remand, as it is not usually pheasible to proceed with a Hearing on that day. A Defendant may either be Remanded in Custody (ie: kept in prison until the adjourned date) or Remanded on Bail.
In Custody cases, the maximum Remand period is 28 days (if the suspect is represented and consents), or 7 days (if they are not represented, or do not consent to a longer period of Remand.)

If they are Remanded on Bail, there are two types of bail:

  • Unconditional – where the defendant is told to return to Court on a specific date for the next hearing
  • Conditional – where the defendant is told to return to court on a specific date but with conditions set by the Magistrates to ensure their attendance (e.g: surrender of passport).

Bail may not be granted for the following reasons:

  • There is a risk that the accused may fail to surrender (i.e.: not turn up to Court.)
  • There is a risk the accused may commit an offence whilst on bail.
  • It is impractical to obtain sufficient information for a decision to be made on dealing with the accused for that offence.
  • There is a risk that the accused may interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice.
  • The accused has previously absconded (jumped bail) in any criminal proceedings.
  • For the accused’s own protection or, if they are a child or young person, for their own welfare or their own interests.

These may not be the only exceptions to bail being granted, although they are the main exceptions.

Section 3.6 of the Bail Act 1976 gives Magistrates the power to require a defendant to comply with such conditions as they consider necessary before their release on bail.
These conditions will vary according to the circumstances of both the case and the defendant, but their aim is to ensure that the defendant will:

  • surrender to custody i.e. turn up at the next hearing
  • not commit an offence whilst on bail
  • not interfere with witnesses or in any way obstruct the course of justice
  • make themselves available so that enquiries or a report can be made to assist the Court in dealing with them for the offence.

Conditions a Magistrate could impose on a Defendant

To try to ensure that the defendant will turn up, the Magistrate can insist that they live in a particular place so that the whereabouts of the Defendant are known. They can also instruct the Defendant to stay away from a specified location – for example, where there may be concerns over interference with witnesses in that location.

The Magistrate can order the defendant to be at home between certain hours.

The Magistrate can ask another person to guarantee a specific sum of money to be paid if the Defendant absconds. The amount is likely to be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and possible sentence, and hence the likelihood that the defendant will abscond.

This is similar to surety, but the money is actually lodged with the Court.

The Defendant can be ordered to report to a police station at regular intervals.

Surrender of Passport
The Defendant can be ordered to give their passport to the Prosecutor to try to stop them leaving the country, and not to make travel arrangements. The Defendant is not to apply for any more travel documents, including the issue of a new passport.

The Magistrate can impose any combination of these conditions. They can also impose any other conditions they see fit.
What the Magistrates decide to do will depend on what they are told about the case by the Prosecutor, and what objections or points are raised by the Defence to show that matters are not as serious as they may appear.

Court Procedures

Procedures vary from Court to Court but generally the format is as follows:

  • The Defendant appears in Court and is identified by the Clerk, whereupon the defendant is asked to confirm their name and address.
  • The Clerk reads out the charge.
  • The Prosecution Lawyer states what they want to happen at the hearing – a Remand, the duration and reason.
  • The Prosecution then outlines the brief facts of the case.
  • The Prosecutor then states any objections to bail and explains the reasons for them.
  • The Defence can then question the witness about the facts.
  • The Defence can call witnesses and explain to the Court their reasons for disagreeing with what has been said.
  • The Prosecution Lawyer then has the right of reply to clear up any points made by the Defence.

The Magistrates then decide on their course of action.
What follows outlines the format of a Remand, and the procedures to be followed:

(Normally, a ‘Remand in Custody’ means that the Defendant is taken to the Remand Wing of the local prison)

  • The Defence will (if it has not already been provided) ask for advance disclosure of the case against their client. This can be provided by either giving them a summary of the evidence or some of the actual witness statements. This should be done through the CPS.
  • If the offence charged is an ‘either-way’ one (typically involving dishonesty) at some point during a Remand Hearing (it may be the first hearing or a later one), the Magistrates have to decide whether the case should be tried by them or committed for trial to the Crown Court. This procedure is known as deciding ‘Mode of Trial’.
  • When the Magistrates consider whether to grant a Defendant bail, they consider all the circumstances relating to the case which have been explained to them by both the Prosecution and the Defence.
  • If the Defendant is refused Bail by the Magistrates, they have the right to appeal to the Crown Court.If the Defendant is granted bail by the Magistrates, then the prosecution have the right to appeal against the decision.

Decisions on the Type of Trial

All cases begin with the Charge being put to the Defendant.

If the case is triable either way, then any representations about which ‘Mode of Trial’ is more suitable will be made at this stage. The Magistrates will make their decision by looking at the nature of the case, the circumstances of the offence, whether they have sufficient powers of punishment, and any other relevant circumstances.

If the Magistrates decide that the case is more suitable for trial on Indictment, their decision is final – but if they consider it is more suitable for Summary Trial, then the Defendant (but not the Prosecutor) has the right to elect for Trial on Indictment.

Under s.51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, if the charge is indictable only, then the case will be ‘sent’ by the Magistrates’ Court directly to the Crown Court without the need for committal proceedings. This is called ‘Transfer Proceedings’.

Plea Before Venue

The Magistrates Courts Act 1980 ss.17A (as amended by the CPIA 1996) allows Defendants charged with an ‘either way’ offence to indicate their intention to plead at the first hearing of the case, before the Magistrates consider the Mode of Trial.

If the Defendant pleads guilty, the Magistrates will then pass sentence immediately, adjourn for sentencing, or commit the case to the Crown Court (should the Magistrates consider their sentencing powers to be insufficient in the matter.)

Committal Proceedings

There are two types of Committal Proceedings:

  • A ‘Contested Committal’, under s.6(1) of the Magistrates Court Act 1980. The Defence will state there is insufficient evidence to commit the Defendant to trial. Magistrates will consider the evidence, and decide whether to commit the Defendant to Crown Court or dismiss the case.
  • B ‘paper committal’, under s.6(2) Magistrates Court Act 1980. The Defence accepts there is a ‘prima facie’ case to answer, and the Magistrates commit the Defendant to Crown Court without considering the evidence. This is the most common situation.

After Committal, the Case Lawyer will arrange the Indictment. The Indictment is then lodged at the Crown Court, and the Court will fix the date for trial.

The Trial Process

The format of a trial in Crown Court is similar to a hearing in Magistrates Court.

A trial starts with the Defendant pleading ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’ (unless they have pleaded at an earlier stage – i.e. the Plea and Case Management hearing.)

If they plead ‘Not Guilty’, then a Jury is selected and the trial can begin.

The Prosecution Counsel outlines the facts of the case which they hope to prove by calling witnesses. These witnesses can be cross-examined by Defence Counsel, whose job it is to attempt to show that the Prosecution’s interpretation of the facts are not correct.
When all the Prosecution evidence has been put before the Court, the Defence Counsel can ask the Judge (in the absence of the Jury) to dismiss the case through lack of evidence. If they fail in this submission then the Defence can call evidence on behalf of the Defendant (including the Defendant). The Prosecution then have the right to cross-examine the defence witnesses.

Once all the evidence has been heard, both the Prosecution and the Defence will summarise their cases to the Jury, known as ‘summing up’.

The final summing up is done by the Judge, whose task it is to explain to the Jury the facts on which they must base their decision, as well as the procedure for coming to that decision. The Jury then retires to consider its verdict. When the Jury has arrived at a verdict the Foreman, whom the Jury has appointed, announces the verdict on each count of the Indictment.

If it is a ‘Guilty’ verdict, the Judge will review any antecedents (particularly any previous convictions) relating to the Defendant.

The Judge will also listen to pleas of mitigation by Defence Counsel before sentencing.

It is also likely that if the Judge is considering any sentence other than a fine he or she will ask for a pre-sentence report about the Defendant – consequently, sentencing may be adjourned to a later date.

Isle of Man Court System

Although English Law does not extend to the Isle of Man, the Manx legal system is based on the principles of English Common Law.

Lawyers in the Isle of Man are known as Advocates, and they combine the roles of solicitors and barristers in England.

There are two High Court judges on the Isle of Man known as Deemsters. They have jurisdiction over all the criminal and civil matters that in England would fall under the High Court, Crown Court or County Court respectively.

The Isle of Man has its own Lay Magistrates, similar to their English counterparts, as well as two Stipendiary Magistrates (the High Bailiff and Deputy High Bailiff) who also act as coroners in inquests and preside over the Licensing Court.

Northern Ireland Court System

The structure in the Northern Ireland Court System is not too dissimilar to the England and Wales system.  However, there are some differences:

  • Appeals from the Magistrates’ Court are directed to the County Court, instead of the Crown Court.
  • There is no Jury in cases that involve terrorist-type offences, and only the Judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or not.
  • The Court of Appeal is located in Belfast, at the Royal Courts of Justice, and hears appeals in criminal matters referred by the Crown Court, as well as civil matters that have been referred by the High Court.
  • County Court judges may sit in the Crown Court to hear criminal cases. District Judges deal only with civil cases.

The Structure of the Northern Ireland Courts Service (starting from the top)

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the United Kingdom. It hears appeals on points of law in cases of major importance.

The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal hears appeals on points of law in civil and criminal cases from all courts.

The High Court

The High Court hears complex or important civil cases in three Divisions:

  • Queens Bench Division
  • Chancery Division
  • Family Division

The High Court also hears appeals from County Courts

The Crown Court

The Crown Court hears all serious criminal cases

County Courts (Including Family Care Centres)

These courts hear a wide range of civil actions and appeals from Magistrates Courts. Within the County Courts are the Small Claims Courts who hear consumer claims and minor civil cases.

Magistrate Courts (Including Youth Courts and Family Proceedings Courts)

Magistrates Courts conduct preliminary hearings in more serious criminal cases. They also hear and determine less serious criminal cases, cases involving juveniles, and some civil and domestic cases including family proceedings.

Coroners Courts

Coroners Courts investigate the circumstances of sudden, violent or unnatural deaths.

The Enforcement of Judgements Office

This department enforces money and other judgements.