The criminal courts

There are two types of court that can hear criminal cases in England and Wales, the magistrates court, and the Crown Court.

Magistrates’ Courts

All criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court. Serious cases are then sent to the Crown Court for trial and/or sentencing. Less serious cases will stay in the magistrates’ court.

Cases in a magistrates’ Court are usually heard by a panel of up to three magistrates. Magistrates are not legally qualified and are supported by legally trained advisors.

Cases may instead be heard by one District Judge.

Crown Court

Serious criminal cases are sent to the Crown Court for trial. Cases which have been tried in a magistrates’ court but exceed the sentencing powers of a magistrate may also be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing.

Trials in a Crown Court are heard by a judge and a jury. In exceptional circumstances there may be no jury, but in all cases, there will be a judge who will decide upon the sentence in the event of a guilty verdict.

Preparing for a court appearance

You should receive a letter confirming the date, time and court location that you are due to attend. The information on this letter is important and you should read it before you go to court.

The lawyers working on the case you are appearing in will explain what you should expect to happen on the day and what, if anything, you should prepare for in advance.

For general information on preparing to attend court see our I’m due in court page.

What happens in a criminal courtroom

You could be at court to attend a hearing or a trial. A hearing is where the court deals with things like what crimes the defendant is charged with and whether the defendant is going to plead guilty or not guilty.

There will only be a trial if the defendant pleads not guilty to one or more of the charges. At trial, people will give evidence and will be questioned on their version of events. A judge, magistrate or jury will decide whether the defendant is guilty. This is known as the verdict.

If a guilty verdict is returned at the end of trial, or if the defendant pleads guilty, the judge or magistrate will determine punishment. This is called the sentence and it could be a fine, a community sentence, a custodial (prison) sentence or something else. This may be done immediately, or at a later date in a sentencing hearing. You can find out more about sentencing on the UK Government website.

I’m due in a criminal court as a defendant

If you have been charged with a crime and told to go to court, you will be called a defendant.

It is very important that you attend court on the date and time required. If you do not, you could be arrested and may be kept in prison until your new court date. The court may deal with your case without you there and then you will not be able to have your say.

Legal Advice

If you are a defendant in criminal proceedings and want help with your case you should talk to a lawyer. You may have already had help from a duty solicitor if you were interviewed by the police.

You should seek the help of a lawyer before attending court proceedings. A duty solicitor at the court may be able to help you if you have not already got a lawyer before attending court.

Both solicitors and barristers are regulated lawyers who work in the criminal courts. See our Types of lawyers page for more details of regulated lawyers.

Attending a criminal court as a witness

If you are appearing as a witness in a case you may want to prepare by reading the information on the Citizens Advice and Victim Support sites.

If you are summoned to be a witness, it is important that you attend – you might be arrested and taken to the court by the police if you do not.

Staff from the Witness Service are able to assist you before you attend court and whilst there. You can find out more about the Witness Service on the Citizens Advice website.

Support available at the criminal courts

Court staff can help you with any questions you may have on the day. They cannot give legal advice or talk about the specific facts of your case, but they will be able to help direct you.

Liaison and Diversion Services are available to help people with mental health problems or special educational needs.

If you cannot understand English very well you should tell the court as soon as possible, preferably ahead of the date of your court appearance, so they can arrange for an interpreter or other support to assist you.

What happens if I plead or am found guilty?

If you plead guilty or the court finds you guilty you will receive a sentence as punishment. If your sentence is a fine, you might have to pay this straight away. To calculate your fine, you will be asked how much money you earn and what your living expenses are.

If you are sentenced to time in prison, you will be taken straight to prison from the court. You may not be able to speak to family or friends before going to prison.

If you receive a suspended sentence, this means that you will not go to prison as long as you follow the conditions of the suspension. If you commit another crime whilst serving a suspended sentence, you will likely be sent to prison. You might also have to do some unpaid work or attend meetings with a probation officer.

In addition to your sentence, you are very likely to get a criminal record. You might have to disclose this to your employer or declare it to other people depending on the crime. You must ensure that you disclose your criminal record if you are obliged to do so.

Useful terms

Some useful terms: