Victims' Guide - After a defendant is charged: The first hearing in the magistrates’ court
There are different types of courts in England and Wales. All criminal cases start with a first hearing in the magistrates’ court.
In magistrates’ courts decisions are made by either a panel of magistrates or a District Judge.
Magistrates are volunteers who have received training to take up this role but they aren’t legal professionals. They are supported by a legal advisor who is a trained solicitor or barrister whose role is to provide legal advice and guidance to the magistrates.
District Judges are trained legal professionals who will have practiced as a solicitor or barrister before becoming a judge.
The first hearing is sometimes used to decide whether a case should stay in the magistrates’ court or should be sent to the Crown Court.
This decision is usually based on the seriousness of the offence.
Less serious offences such as motoring offences or public order offences can usually only be tried in the magistrates’ court. These are called ‘summary only’ offences.
The most serious offences such as rape or murder can only be tried in the Crown Court. These are called ‘indictable only’ offences.
Offences which fall somewhere in between are called ‘either way’ offences and the District Judge or magistrates will decide whether the case should stay in the magistrates’ court or be sent to the Crown Court.
They will do this by reviewing the case and deciding whether they would have the power to appropriately sentence the case if the defendant was convicted.
If a defendant is convicted in a magistrates’ court they can be sentenced to a maximum of 12 months in prison. So if the defendant would get a higher sentence than that if they were convicted then the case will be sent to the Crown Court.
Sentencing guidelines are set by the Sentencing Council in line with UK law.
In ‘either way’ offences the defendant also has the option to choose for their case to be heard in the Crown Court, in front of a jury.
At the first hearing, the magistrates’ court will decide whether the defendant should be released on bail.
Bail is when it is decided that the defendant does not need to be kept in prison before the trial. If a defendant is released on bail they are still required to come to court at each stage of the process but they won’t be held in prison between hearings.
If a defendant is not released on bail, they will be held in custody (in prison) until the trial.
The CPS prosecutor and the defence lawyer will present arguments to the court about whether the defendant should be granted bail. It is then up to the court to make this decision.
If a defendant is released on bail the court will often set out certain conditions that the defendant must meet to be allowed to remain on bail. The police will explain to you whether there are any conditions the defendant must follow and what they mean in practice. Bail conditions could include things like the defendant handing over their passport or being told not to contact you or go to the area where you live.
If a defendant breaks any of these conditions they may be remanded in custody (sent to prison) before the trial. If you have any information that suggests a defendant has broken one of these conditions or if you have any concerns at all you should get in touch with the police as soon as possible.
The police will keep you updated as to what happens at this hearing.