Criminal Courts Structure in United Kingdom
The Structure of the Courts: Criminal
Introduction to Criminal Courts Structure
The most numerous courts in England and Wales are the magistrates’ courts, where justices of the peace, or magistrates, sit. Most magistrates are lay people who sit on a bench of three with a legally qualified clerk who advises them on the law. In cities there are also stipendiary magistrates who are legally qualified and sit alone. The office of justice of the peace is an ancient one, which predates its recognition in statute in 1361. Now it is largely governed by acts of Parliament.
Magistrates decide the vast majority of criminal matters and a limited range of civil and administrative questions. Appeal can be made from the magistrates’ decision to the Crown Court, where a circuit judge sits, usually with two magistrates who did not hear the case in the magistrates’ court. The appeal is a complete rehearing of the case, and evidence is heard again if it is in dispute. The Crown Court has power in these cases to increase as well as decrease the sentence imposed below. The only further appeal is to the Divisional Court of the High Court on a point of law, or on the grounds of unfairness in the proceedings. Cases may also reach the Crown Court when magistrates commit a convicted defendant for sentence, which allows the Crown Court to use its greater powers. This is done when the magistrates think a case is too serious for them to decide.
The majority of work in the Crown Court covers trials on indictment-that is, relating to formal charges. These cases are first heard in the Crown Court, to which they are committed by magistrates, who decide whether there is enough evidence to make a case against the defendant. More often than not, today, this is a formal matter, made on paper, although there is provision for the defendant to require evidence to be given. A judge and jury hear trials on indictment. The seniority and special qualifications of the judge determine the kind of case he or she is permitted to preside over. The judge decides the law and the jury the facts.
Crown Court jurisdiction was created in 1971 and replaced Quarter Sessions, which dealt with matters somewhat more serious than in magistrates’ courts, and appeals from magistrates, and assize courts, which were held when High Court judges came from London to the provinces. The old system was too inflexible and sat too infrequently to deal with the increasing volume of criminal business.
Appeal from the Crown Court is to the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, which usually consists of a Lord Justice of Appeal, and two judges of the High Court. This is not a hearing but a true appeal, so the appellant (the person making the appeal) has to show that there was a mistake in law or some flaw in the proceedings which meant that he or she did not receive a fair trial. There is provision for the Court of Appeal to find that, while the trial was flawed, no injustice to the defendant was done, and the conviction should stand. An appeal against sentence must show that the sentence was clearly excessive.
Either the defendant or the prosecution may appeal to the House of Lords in its appellate capacity, which does not involve lay members of the House, but is heard by a committee of paid Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. The appeal is only available if the Court of Appeal certifies that a point of law of general public importance is involved, and if either that court or a Lords’ committee gives leave.” (1)
Notes and References
Guide to Criminal Courts Structure
In this Section
Courts in the United Kingdom, Court of Common Pleas, Court of High Commission, Court of Star Chamber, English Court System Developments, Criminal Courts Structure and Civil Courts Structure.