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Criminal law courts in the UK

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Date added: 17-06-26

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Criminal offences are categorised into three classes in accordance with their gravity: summary offences (common assault, soliciting and failure to pay a TV license), offences triable only on indictment (murder, manslaughter and causing death by dangerous driving) and offences which are triable either way (inflicting grievous bodily harm, unlawful wounding and indecent assault). This procedure is governed by the Magistrates’ Courts Act, 1980 as amended by the Criminal Procedures and Investigations Act, 1996 and further amended by the Criminal Justice Act, 2003. The amendments to the original statute were intended to reduce the workload of the Crown Court, so the defendant is asked prior to the mode of trial decision being made, to indicate his or her plea. Mode of trial will be heard once bail has either been allowed or denied. The criminal courts in England and Wales are the Magistrates’ court and the Crown Court. Those offences considered least serious are those classified as summary offences and these are triable solely in the Magistrates’ courts. But those offences considered to be the most serious can only be tried in the Crown Court. A large number of offences such as theft are triable either way and so can be heard in either the Magistrates’ court r the Crown Court. This depends on the defendant’s plea and whether or not the magistrates’ believe that it is within their jurisdiction to pass sentence on such an offence. If the defendant pleads guilty to an offence which is traible either way then the magistrates’ can proceed to sentence (or commit to the Crown Court for sentencing). If the defendant enters a not guilty plea to a triable either way offence then the mode of trial will be held before the magistrates’. At this point the magistrates’ may decide after having heard representations by the prosecution that the matter is too serous to be heard at the Magistrates court and that the matter will be committed to the Crown court for trial. If the magistrates’ do not deicide to commit the matter to the Crown Court, the defendant still has the right to opt that the matter be heard in the Crown Court by way of trial by jury. In practice the majority of triable either way offences are heard in the Magistrates’ court as neither the magistrates nor the defendant will decide that the matter ought to be heard in the Crown Court. Failure to comply with this procedure may render the whole proceedings null and void and this may mean that defendant will able to apply for judicial review to quash any consequential conviction. A change to the mode of trial whether from being heard summarily to being heard on indictment or vice versa will only be allowed with the magistrates’ consent under s. 25 MCA, 1980 and subject to amendments by CJA, 2003.
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