Click on the links below to find out what happens in different parts of the UK:
- England and Wales
- Scotland - coming soon
- Northern Ireland - coming soon
England and Wales
Courts where offences are heard
There are three kinds of offence and these can be heard in different courts.
- Summary offences. Summary offences are heard at a Magistrates' Court. A Magistrates' Court can sentence offenders to up to six months' imprisonment (or 12 months for more than one offence in some cases) and an unlimited fine.
- Indictable offences. Indictable offences are heard at a Crown Court. A Crown Court can impose more severe sentences.
- ‘Either way’ offences. An either way offence can be heard in a Magistrates’ Court or a Crown Court. A more serious either way offence may be heard by the Crown Court. An either way offence will also be heard at a Crown Court if an accused person chooses to have their case heard there.
Preliminary hearings and length of trials
Before the main trial goes ahead, a prosecution may start with one or more short hearings, which are also called ‘preliminary hearings’.
These short hearings give lawyers an opportunity to talk about any legal issues that may affect the case and discuss the availability of witnesses.
The aim of these hearings is to help a trial proceed smoothly without unnecessary delays. No witnesses will be called at these hearings.
Cases can take a long time to come to court. This may be because witnesses need to be traced or documents need to be obtained, or for other reasons. Court hearings may also start late, be cut short or be postponed.
Your witness care officer will be able to explain to you what is likely to happen at a planned hearing and how a case is progressing.
A case heard in a Magistrates’ Court is usually determined by magistrates. Magistrates are trained volunteers who normally sit in twos or threes with one as chairperson. They sit with a legal adviser who is a qualified lawyer. The legal adviser gives the magistrates advice about the law and court procedure and records decisions. Magistrates do not wear robes or judicial wigs. In some Magistrates’ Courts there are legally qualified district judges who sit alone.
The defendant is usually required to appear in court to plead guilty or not guilty.
In some cases, someone who is accused of a less serious offence may be able to plead guilty by completing a form and posting it to the court instead of attending court.
If the defendant pleads guilty, the magistrates or district judge will hear the facts of the case before sentencing.
If the defendant pleads not guilty, then a date is usually set for a trial and the case is adjourned until that date. Magistrates’ Court trial dates may be set some time ahead to allow lawyers time to prepare. Sometimes trial dates are postponed, occasionally this happens at the last minute.
The people who speak in court for each side are usually lawyers. In some cases, a trained representative who is not a lawyer may speak for the CPS. The defendant may choose to speak for themself.
The person speaking for the CPS presents the evidence against the defendant. The person speaking for the defendant then presents their case.
Both sides may call witnesses to give evidence. Witnesses may include police crash investigation officers or someone who witnessed a crash.
Photographs, videos and diagrams may be shown. Both sides can ask questions or put statements to witnesses. The magistrates can also ask witnesses questions.
If both sides agree in advance of the trial that a written statement given by a witness is not going to be challenged in court, then that witness may not be required to attend court, and their written evidence may be read out instead. The defendant can choose not to give evidence. If they do give evidence, they can also be questioned.
After all of the evidence has been presented, the lawyers for both sides make closing speeches. The person speaking for the CPS will speak first. The magistrates, or district judge, then consider their verdict. If found guilty, the offender is sentenced.
Magistrates’ Courts are sometimes held in buildings which serve other uses, such as town halls.
Most cases heard in the Crown Court are determined by judges and juries.
The judge decides on matters of law and the sentence if a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty after a trial. The judge and the lawyers who present evidence in the Crown Court wear robes and some wear judicial wigs.
If a defendant pleads not guilty, their guilt or innocence is determined at trial by jury. A jury is made up of 12 members of the community, chosen at random from the electoral register. A jury will be directed by the judge to try to reach a unanimous verdict, meaning all jurors reach the same verdict. However, in some cases judges allow a jury to reach a majority verdict with 10 of the 12 jurors in agreement.
Before a Crown Court hearing, a defendant must appear at least once in a Magistrates’ Court, where the charge is read out.
If a defendant is being charged with an ‘either way’ offence that will be heard in the Crown Court, the defendant will usually appear once in the Magistrates’ Court before the case moves to the Crown Court. Sometimes a case can be heard entirely in the Magistrates’ Court. Sometimes a case is heard in the Magistrates' Court but sentencing takes place in the Crown Court.
- If a defendant pleads not guilty, the first hearing at Crown Court should take place about four weeks after they appear at a Magistrates’ Court.
- If a defendant pleads guilty to an 'either way' offence in the Magistrates’ Court, the sentencing hearing in the Crown Court should take place after about three weeks.
At the first Crown Court hearing, the defendant usually says whether they are pleading guilty or not guilty. Sometimes the judge will set a date for this to happen at a second hearing.
- If a defendant pleads guilty, the judge will sentence them. This may be at a later date.
- If the defendant pleads not guilty, a date is set for a trial.
A trial date may be many weeks or months ahead. Sometimes additional hearings take place before a trial so lawyers and the judge can discuss certain legal matters.
At a Crown Court trial, the evidence for the prosecution is presented by a barrister or crown advocate. Barristers and crown advocates are lawyers who specialise in presenting cases in court. A barrister usually speaks for the defendant.
The lawyers present evidence to the judge and jury to support their cases. Photos, videos and diagrams may be shown to the jury. The lawyers may read statements from witnesses and call witnesses to give evidence in court. Witnesses may include police crash investigation officers or someone who witnessed a crash.
The lawyers representing either side, and the judge, can ask any witness questions. The defendant can choose not to give evidence.
After the evidence has been presented the lawyers make closing speeches. Then the judge sums up. The jury retires to consider its verdict. If the verdict is guilty, the judge considers the sentence.
If a young person aged between 10 and 17 is charged with one or more criminal offences, their case will be heard in a Youth Court.
Youth Courts are part of Magistrates’ Courts. Up to three specially trained magistrates or a district judge hear a case. If a young person is charged with an offence which, in the case of an adult, is punishable with 14 years’ imprisonment or more, the Youth Court can send them to the Crown Court for trial or sentence.
Youth Court hearings are not open to the public and you can only attend if you have been given permission by the magistrates.
If a young person is found guilty of a criminal offence they may be sent to:
- a Young Offenders Institution (YOI) if they are aged between 15 and 20 and the court considers the offence serious enough. A YOI is a secure facility like a prison – inmates cannot leave until they are released.
- a Secure Children’s Home (if aged between 10 and 16)
- a Secure Training Centre (if aged between 12 and 17).
For more information about sentences for young people who commit criminal offences, go to www.gov.uk and search for 'youth justice board'.
At trial, there are three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and, in some cases, guilty of a lesser offence.
Sometimes, no verdict can be reached. In this case, a retrial may happen. Sometimes during a trial the defendant changes their plea. They might decide to plead guilty after previously pleading not guilty. Or they might decide to plead guilty to a lesser offence.
If the verdict is not guilty, the defendant goes free. Even if new evidence emerges against them, they cannot be tried again (except in very rare circumstances and for very serious offences).
A person who is found guilty of committing a crime is called an offender.
Pleas in mitigation and background reports
Before an offender is sentenced, their lawyer will advise the judge or magistrates about any mitigating factors that they think might reduce the sentence, such as an offender’s stated remorse or personal circumstances.
The judge or magistrates may ask for background information about the offender. Sentencing may be delayed to a later date so this background information can be provided and the judge or magistrates can consider the sentence.
An offender’s sentence is decided by the magistrates, district judge or Crown Court judge.
When sentencing, various things may be taken into account, including:
- any ‘pleas in mitigation’ or the findings of background reports
- Victim Personal Statements
- whether the offender pleaded guilty or not. If the offender pleaded guilty, then the sentence can be reduced. This is called a 'discount'. The discount depends on when the offender pleaded guilty but can be between 10% and 33%
- guidelines on sentencing
- the level of sentences in similar cases in the past. This is called ‘case law’
- the powers of the court. The Crown Court can impose much tougher penalties than a Magistrates’ Court. In some cases, a Magistrates’ Court may refer a case to the Crown Court for sentencing
- whether a fine or community sentence is appropriate rather than prison.
For more information about sentencing, including sentencing guidelines, go to the Sentencing Council website at www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk.
If the law changes, offenders will be sentenced according to the law at the time the offence was committed.
Often a community sentence is given, rather than a prison sentence. This means an offender has to serve their sentence under supervision in the community.
For adults this is called a community order.
For young people this is called either a youth rehabilitation order or a referral order.
As part of a community order or youth rehabilitation order, the judge or magistrates can impose a combination of different requirements, including:
- unpaid work on behalf of the community
- a curfew
- a requirement to attend an offender training course (for example a course on the dangers of drink driving).
In a referral order, a panel of people from the local community and youth justice workers agree a programme of work to address the young person’s behaviour.
If an offender doesn’t comply with the requirements of a community sentence, they may have to go back to court and they may receive a different sentence.
For more information, go to www.gov.uk and search for ‘community sentences’.
A court often does not impose the maximum penalty and sometimes imposes a lower penalty. If you are unhappy with a sentence and wish to make your views known, you can contact the CPS. You may also want to contact a road safety charity that campaigns on issues around sentencing.
Appeals by an offender
Following a criminal case, a convicted person may appeal against their conviction or sentence or both. If in custody, they can apply for bail and in some cases may be released while waiting for their appeal.
If the case was heard in a Magistrates’ Court, a convicted person has the right to appeal against their conviction or sentence. The appeal will be heard in the Crown Court by a judge who sits with two magistrates. There is no jury. The Crown Court has the power to quash the conviction or to change the sentence to be more lenient or more severe.
If the case was heard in the Crown Court, a convicted person has the right to appeal against their conviction or sentence, or both. If an appeal does go ahead, it is heard in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal may uphold the conviction, change the conviction to a conviction for a different offence, change the sentence to be more lenient, acquit the person, or order a re-trial. The Court of Appeal can also order a defendant to serve additional days in prison if it considers the appeal should never have been brought.
Appeals by the prosecution
The prosecution has no automatic right to appeal a decision made in a Magistrates’ Court. However, in some circumstances, if there has been a legal error, it may be possible. This appeal is made to the High Court.
The CPS has no power to appeal against a verdict of not guilty in the Crown Court. For some serious offences, and if the CPS thinks the sentence is ‘unduly lenient’, the CPS can ask the Attorney General to consider referring a sentence imposed by the Crown Court to the Court of Appeal.
If you think a sentence was too lenient you can write to the CPS and the Attorney General and explain your concerns. The Attorney
General's Office (AGO) provides legal advice to government. For more information about the AGO's responsibilities and how to contact them, go to www.gov.uk and search for 'Attorney General'.
Appeals to the Supreme Court
Either the prosecution or the offender may appeal to the Supreme Court if there is a point of law being questioned that is of general public importance.
When can appeals be lodged?
All appeals must be lodged within 28 days of a sentence being imposed and sometimes sooner. Appeals to the High Court (judicial review) must be brought within three months.
You have the right to be informed of any appeals. This is written into the government document called ‘Code of practice for victims of crime’. You can access this document at www.brake.org.uk/codes-and-standards.
You can ask your police or Witness Care Unit contact whether an appeal has been lodged by the offender or the CPS. They can tell you the date of an appeal, update on its progress or tell you any outcome.
Will an offender serve their whole sentence in prison?
Offenders are usually released from prison before the end of their sentence.
Most offenders are given a ‘standard determinate sentence’. This means they will be released on licence after serving half of their sentence in prison.
An offender who has committed a serious offence and is considered by the courts to be dangerous may be given an ‘extended determinate sentence’ or a ‘life sentence’. In this case they are likely to serve more, or all, of their sentence in prison. This depends on a risk assessment by the Parole Board.
After release, an offender will serve the rest of the sentence ‘on licence’. An offender ‘on licence’ is supervised in the community by the probation service.
An offender serving a sentence of less than two years will usually serve an additional period of ‘post sentence supervision’ after their sentence has expired. This is also supervised in the community by the probation service.
Offenders who are on licence or serving a period of supervision are required to comply with certain conditions. These may include living at a certain address, a curfew, a requirement not to make contact with you, and compulsory meetings with the probation service. If an offender fails to comply with these conditions or commits another offence they may be given a warning or have to go back to prison.
Sometimes an offender is released early under a special scheme called the ‘Home Detention Curfew Scheme’. Under this scheme, an offender must stay at a particular address during certain hours and wear an electronic tag to monitor their movements.
Sometimes an offender is released from prison for a short time on a temporary licence. This could be to attend a funeral, to have medical treatment, or to prepare for their return to the community. Offenders must return to prison at the end of a temporary licence.
Will an offender serve their whole driving disqualification?
Under certain circumstances, an offender who has been disqualified from driving can apply to court to have their disqualification period reduced.
This process is normally called a ‘removal of disqualification’ application. An offender can apply to the court for a removal of disqualification after:
- two years, if the disqualification was for between two and four years;
- half the disqualification period, if the disqualification was for between four and 10 years;
- five years, if the disqualification was for 10 years or more (including disqualification for life).
The offender must have a good reason for asking for the disqualification to be reduced: for example, if there has been a change in circumstances such as the offender developing a disability. If the court refuses the application, the offender can reapply after three months.
The law sets out the minimum period of a driving disqualification but courts can impose longer bans, including life bans. Courts are also required to consider the impact of a prison sentence on a driving disqualification, and may lengthen an offender’s driving disqualification if the offender is spending time in prison.
Will I be told when an offender is going to be released?
If an offender is sentenced to 12 months or more in prison for certain, serious violent offences (which includes some serious driving offences), you should be invited to join the Victim Contact Scheme run by the National Probation Service. If you join the scheme, you should be assigned a Victim Liaison Officer.
You can join the scheme when an offender is sentenced or at a later date, while they are still serving their prison sentence. This is written into the government document called ‘Code of practice for victims of crime’.
You can access this document at www.brake.org.uk/codes-and-standards.
Your Victim Liaison Officer can inform you, if you wish, about key stages in an offender’s sentence. For example, they can tell you:
- if an offender is being considered for transfer to an open prison; or
- if an offender becomes eligible to be considered for release.
You can also talk to your Victim Liaison Officer about the conditions that are attached to an offender’s release licence and you may be able to ask for certain conditions to be attached to the licence. For example, you can ask for a condition that the offender must not try to contact you or your family. You can also ask for an exclusion zone, banning the offender from going near your home or workplace or another place you travel to frequently.
To find out if you are entitled to join the Victim Contact Scheme, call 0300 047 6325 or email email@example.com.
If you are worried about the release of a prisoner or you have received unwanted contact from a prisoner, you can call the Victim Helpline run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Call 0300 060 6699 between 9am and 4pm, Mondays to Fridays, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.