All criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court.
Cases are heard by either:
- 2 or 3 magistrates
- a district judge
There is not a jury in a magistrates’ court.
Cases a magistrates’ court deals with
A magistrates’ court normally handles cases known as ‘summary offences’, for example:
- most motoring offences
- minor criminal damage
- common assault (not causing significant injury)
It can also deal with some of the more serious offences, such as:
- drugs offences
These are called ‘either way’ offences and can be heard either in a magistrates’ court or a Crown Court.
Some courts might be closed because of coronavirus (COVID-19). Check if the court you’re planning to visit is open to the public.
Cases that magistrates pass to the Crown Court
Magistrates’ courts always pass the most serious crimes to the Crown Court, for example:
These are known as ‘indictable offences’.
Being kept in custody or granted bail
In some cases the magistrates’ court will decide if you should be kept in custody until your next court hearing, or released on bail.
This may happen if:
- another court hearing is needed
- the court needs more information before passing sentence
- your case is passed to the Crown Court for trial or sentencing
If you’re released on bail, you might have to follow strict conditions such as keeping away from certain people or places, staying indoors or wearing a tag.
If you do not attend court after being granted bail, you can be put in prison.
Sentences a magistrates’ court can give
The court can give punishments including:
- up to 6 months in prison (or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence)
- a fine
- a community sentence, like doing unpaid work in the community
- a ban, for example from driving or keeping an animal
Courts can also give a combination of punishments - for example a fine and unpaid work in the community.
If the court decides your sentence should be for longer than 6 months, it can pass your case to the Crown Court for sentencing.
Appealing a sentence or conviction
If you disagree with verdict of the magistrates’ court, you may be able to appeal.