4 minute read

Comparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: England and Wales

Criminal Courts: Pre-trial And Trial

Criminal courts include the magistrates' court, the youth court, the Crown Court, and the Court of Appeal. All routine cases will start in the magistrates' court with a pretrial decision about granting or refusing bail. Another important pretrial decision concerns the mode of trial for cases where a person has pleaded not guilty and the offense is triable-either-way. As noted previously, some indictable offenses, such as murder and rape, are "indictable only"; these must be sent on to the Crown Court. Other indictable offenses are triable-either-way, and these can either be heard by the magistrates' court or in the Crown Court. The mode of trial decision determines in which court the case will be heard.

In the magistrates' court, decisions are made about guilt and sentence by lay magistrates or District Judges. Lay magistrates are members of the local community appointed by the Lord Chancellor's Department. They are part-time and usually sit one day every two weeks. They do not need legal qualifications and typically sit in panels of three, known as the "bench." Stipendiary magistrates are paid, full-time lawyers with experience of criminal practice. In 2000 there were 30,308 lay magistrates (48 percent of them women), 93 District Judges, and 45 Deputy District Judges. District Judges and lay magistrates have the same powers and jurisdiction. They make pretrial decisions about bail conditions or pre-trial detention (remands in custody), legal representation, and committal for trial or sentence to the Crown Court.

Magistrates in summary trials determine issues of guilt and sentence convicted offenders. They are responsible for the overwhelming majority of criminal convictions and sentencing decisions. They are assisted on matters of law by a legally trained Clerk to the Justices.

The more serious criminal cases are heard in the Crown Court where a judge presides over the trial and a lay jury determines guilt. However, most cases are resolved without a trial because in the overwhelming majority of cases the defendant pleads guilty, induced by the advantage of a reduction in sentence length if a plea of guilt is entered early in the proceedings. When guilt is contested the trial proceeds with the presentation of prosecution and defense evidence and witnesses are subject to cross-examination by opposing counsel.

Criminal liability is often contested not by denial that the events took place but by a claim that the defendant was not responsible for the actions that occurred, or that the actions of the defendant were justified. Such defenses include self-defense, mistake, duress, provocation, automatism (involuntary act), or diminished responsibility. These defenses can sometimes persuade the jury or District Judges that the person is not guilty; even if the defendant is convicted, such defenses may suggest mitigating circumstances resulting in a less severe sentence. Where a suspect is below the age of criminal responsibility or is certified as mentally ill, he or she will not be regarded as responsible under the criminal law for their actions. The decision on guilt is made by a twelve-person jury, who are able to make a majority verdict (10–2 or 11–1) if, after a length of time, a unanimous verdict is unlikely.

The judge's role is threefold: to ensure a fair trial, for example, by excluding unreliable evidence; to sum up the evidence at the end of the trial and summarize the legal issues for the jury before they make a decision; and, if the defendant is convicted, to decide on the sentence. The judge should act as the umpire and ensure a fair trial. If the evidence is insufficient, unreliable, or unfair the judge can order a directed acquittal.

In criminal cases, appeals can be made against conviction, against the sentence, or both. Appeals against decisions made in the magistrates' court are heard by the Crown Court; routine appeals against conviction or sentence in the Crown Court are heard in the Court of Appeal.

Where a serious miscarriage of justice is alleged, a review body has the role of deciding whether to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal. The Criminal Cases Review Commission was established by the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, and its function is to review suspected miscarriages of justice. It can refer a conviction, verdict, or sentence to the Court of Appeal if it feels there are grounds for re-examining the case. It came into operation in 1997 and by March 2000 had made eighty referrals to the Court of Appeal. The leading reasons for referrals are breach of identification or interview procedures; use of questionable witnesses; problems of scientific evidence such as DNA or fingerprints; nondisclosure by the prosecution of evidence that could have helped the defense case; and problems with other types of evidence such as alibis, eyewitnesses, and confessions.

Cases involving defendants above the age of legal responsibility—ten years of age—who have not yet reached the age of eighteen will normally be heard by the youth court, which is attached to the magistrates' court; the public is not allowed to observe events in the youth court. For certain grave crimes such as murder, a child or youth will have their case heard in a Crown Court adapted in some measure to the needs of children.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawComparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: England and Wales - Law Enforcement: The Police And Prosecution, Prosecutors: Crown Prosecution Service, Criminal Courts: Pre-trial And Trial