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Magistrates Court

Magistrates Court

So the day in court has arrived.  All cases start off in the Magistrates Court, even the most serious offences.  Some cases must go to Crown Court for determination.  These range from murders to cases involving breach of trust.  Relatively minor offences can be dealt with at Magistrates Court but in many of the cases dealt with in a Magistrates Court you have the right of trial by jury - ie Crown Court.  You should take your Solicitors advice on whether the case is best heard at Magistrates or Crown Court.  Remember just because you opt for Magistrates Court does not mean that you will not go to prison - Magistrates can send you to prison for short periods, District Judges (Stipendiary Magistrates) can send you to prison for even longer.

You should be aware that Magistrates Courts tend to attract a reputation for dealing with certain cases or for being generally "hard".  One Court I know rarely acquits an accused and has many appeals going to Crown Court.  The Chairman of the Bench, when she retired recently, gave a thank you speech to her staff and solicitors and told them that in all her years on the bench she had yet to acquit anyone.  It is unlikely in a day on the bench that she would not see an innocent person, in 20 years it is impossible.

Whether these stories of harshness or softness have any basis of fact should be the subject of an investigation but it is also true that Magistrates are influenced by the wish of Politicians to get tuff on certain types of crime.  If you are in that category you could be treated harshly.

For your day in court prepare yourself well.  Talk to your solicitor a day or two before your appearance and read through the case against you and your defence.  Put on a smart appearance - your best suit perhaps but certainly a clean shirt and tie.  Magistrates are not meant to judge you by your appearance but by the case in court however many believe that your appearance does matter.  Talk of "he looked guilty" may be nonsense but it is an anecdote which may have some basis of fact.  But, your smart appearance will make you feel better and confident.

Take time the night before to get your clothes ready, your shoes cleaned and have your transport arrangements agreed.  Avoid alcohol and drugs as you need a clear head for your day in court.   Get up early and bath or shower then get dressed ready for court.  Take your papers with you and get to court on time.  Do not take your mobile phone with you, or if you do turn if off as you enter the court.  It is likely that there is a no-smoking policy in court - respect that otherwise you can face additional penalties for contempt of court.

In a Magistrates Court it is unlikely that there will be a dock and you are more likely to be seated at the rear of the court while your Solicitor does all the talking.  You will be asked to do no more than confirm your name and address and date of birth. 

If you are pleading guilty to the only charge before the court then the appearance will be brief.  Essentially you are just there to be sentenced.  If necessary a probation report  or pre-sentence report will have been obtained.  In these circumstances and if sentenced to a term of imprisonment you are likely to be taken direct from the court to prison.

If you are pleading guilty to one of a range of offences it is likely that some deal will be done with the prosecution to shorten the case.  Some charges might be dropped. The magistrates might advise what they are prepared to hear.

The case will then start with the Prosecution presenting its case and calling its witnesses.  No matter what the provocation remain silent and composed.  The Magistrates will be watching you for reaction.  If you need to prompt your Solicitor to ask questions or correct something pass the Solicitor a note.

Your Solicitor will present your defence and any witnesses you are able to call to support your case.  You will usually have to give evidence yourself though in some cases this will not happen.  You and all witnesses can be asked questions by the Prosecution Solicitor.

Your Solicitor should have briefed you on what evidence to give.  Saying something you know to be untrue is lying and you are likely to be punished for this if found out.  Perhaps the Jonathon Aitkin case is the most publicised in recent years but every week at lower levels people get tripped up and sent to prison for lying.  Better to avoid answering a question than to lie.  You are on oath and you should tell the truth.  A general guide is to only answer the question asked, do not extend this with additional information, do not make accusations about others (they are not on trial).  The court just wants the facts.  Your solicitor will of course try to get you to tell your story and you should co-operate in this.  Be most wary of the Prosecution Solicitor.

Both the Prosecution and the Defence Solicitors will sum up their cases and the Magistrates may retire to consider the case.  In all probability they will be want to consult advice on sentence.

The Magistrates will return to court and you will be asked to stand to be sentenced.  This can be a harrowing experience during which the Chairman of the Bench will say some things about you.  What is said might be far from reality but you have to suffer it.  Keep quiet and composed.  

There are several possible outcomes and all have their problems except one and that is that you are acquitted.  ie you are not guilty.  Well done you are released and you are clear.  Put the experience behind you and get on with your life.  You will have learnt a lot about yourself, your family and your friends.  Also about the police and the judicial system.

If you are found guilty:

Absolute discharge.  ie you are guilty but there is no penalty
Condition discharge eg. payment of compensation, bound over to keep the peace etc.
Payment of a fine
Payment of Court Costs
Payment of Compensation
Community Service
Remanded to Crown Court for Sentence
Sentence deferred pending reports