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Differences between the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court

If you are charged with a criminal offence, the case will always start in the Magistrates’ Court. Where the case goes from there will depend upon the seriousness of the offence and what category the offence is.

Indictable Only Offences

The most serious cases are known as “indictable only” offences which can only be tried before the Crown Court before a jury. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving is an example of such an offence.

“Either Way” Offences

Some crimes are “either way” offences and can be tried in either the Crown Court or the venue normally reserved for less serious offences, the Magistrates’ Court. Dangerous driving is an offence that falls within this category.

“Summary Only” Offences

Less serious offences such as drink driving and speeding are “summary only” and therefore can only be heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

How do the Court Venues Differ?

The two arenas are very different, not only in sentencing powers but also in their layout and general “personality”. The main differences can be summarised as follows:

Tribunal:

As you enter a Magistrates’ Court courtroom the first thing you will probably notice is that the hearing will usually be manned by a “bench” of three lay magistrates with a legal advisor in front of them. The magistrates are not legally qualified but they will be guided on points of law by the legal advisor. Although it is most common that a lay bench will sit in the Magistrates’ Court, there are times when a District Judge can have conduct of a hearing in the Court.

A Crown Court Judge will always have conduct of a trial in the Crown Court. The ultimate decision in relation to guilt or innocence will rest with a jury.

If you are appealing a decision made in the Magistrates’ Court then no jury will be present and a Judge will decide whether or not the appeal is successful.

Formality:

You will notice that all barristers in the Crown Court will be wearing wigs and gowns whilst they are performing their advocacy duties. This is not the case in the Magistrates’ Court as advocates are not required to wear wigs in this less formal court setting.

We find that people often feel Crown Courts to be a more intimidating venue due to the more formal nature of the hearings there.  It is often the case that Magistrates’ Court hearings have more of an informal “free-for-all” feel to them and are less formal than hearings in the Crown Court.

Sentencing powers:

The Crown Court deals with all manner of serious offences and therefore has the power to impose life sentences in the most serious of cases. In contrast, the maximum sentence you can receive in the Magistrates’ Court is 6 months’ imprisonment. It is often the case with more serious motoring offences that fall within the “either way” bracket, that the Magistrates’ Court will consider that they do not have sufficient sentencing powers to deal with the case and will refer it to be dealt with in the Crown Court after the first appearance. In some cases a defendant can be convicted of an either way offence in the Magistrates’ Court and the matter can be referred up to the Crown Court at that stage if the Magistrates feel that they have insufficient sentencing powers appropriate for the seriousness of the offence.

The allocation procedure is followed when the venue of an either way offence is decided and it may be that you have some choice over this in which case, we will fully advise you of the pros and cons of your case being tried in the Crown Court before a jury or in the Magistrates’ Court.

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