A guide to the Crown Court
What is the Crown Court?
Criminal cases are tried in two different types of Court – a Magistrates' Court and the Crown Court. Crown Courts was established in January 1972 and are located regionally. The Crown Court hears cases that are sent to it by a Magistrates' Court (either at first instance or on appeal).
Will my case go to the Crown Court?
This depends on the type of offence with which you have been charged. Criminal offences are classified into three types: i) “Summary-only” offences which can only be tried in a Magistrates’ Court; ii) “Either-way” offences which can be tried either in a Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court; and iii) “Indictable-only” offences which can only be tried in the Crown Court.
All criminal cases make their first appearance in a Magistrates’ Court. Summary offences remain there and trials take place before Lay Magistrates or a District Judge. Indictable offences are sent straight to the Crown Court and no plea is taken by the Magistrates. Either-way offences are sent to the Crown Court if the Magistrates think they are too serious to remain in the Magistrates’ Court, usually because they believe their sentencing powers to be insufficient. An either-way offence which is not so serious means that you have a choice. You can elect to be tried summarily in the Magistrates’ Court or before a judge and jury in the Crown Court.
What is the difference between Summary Trial and Jury Trial?
A summary trial takes place before a single judge or Lay Magistrates. It is a shorter and less expensive process. You can usually expect to be tried in two or three months from the date you first appear, sometimes less. The process is simpler and less formal although the rules of evidence, the law and the procedural rules are broadly the same.
A jury trial takes place before a jury and a Circuit Judge. A jury consists of 12 ordinary members of the public. A Crown Court trial can take much longer. It is a more complicated process and there is greater scope for formal legal argument. Often this takes place before the trial itself. This means that it can take between six months and a year for a jury trial to take place.
Statistics demonstrate that there is a greater chance of acquittal in the Crown Court before a jury than after a summary trial in a Magistrates Court, but you should take legal advice about what is best for you. Because it is longer and the hearings tend to be more complex, a Crown Court trial can be more expensive. Crown Court proceedings may also attract more publicity and, as above, the Court has greater sentencing powers. We can help you with this decision.
What happens when my case is sent to the Crown Court?
If your case is sent to the Crown Court, you will be asked to attend a Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing (PTPH). This will usually take place 28 days after you appear in the Magistrates’ Court. Before the hearing the prosecution (usually the Crown Prosecution Service (‘CPS’)) will make all the evidence available for you to consider. This is usually completed online via the ‘Digital Case System’.
At this hearing, you will be asked to confirm your plea. If you plead guilty, your case will be adjourned to a new date for sentencing.
If you plead not guilty, the case will be given a trial date and the Court will give directions. Directions are various steps that the parties need to complete by certain dates in a timetable. These directions are now referred to as ‘Stages’. They include disclosure of unused material and the service of a defence statement. There may be further hearings before the trial if legal argument is required or there are procedural issues.
You are likely to be placed on bail which means you have a legal obligation to attend the trial.
Do I need a barrister?
Yes, you do. The Crown Court is a court of superior jurisdiction meaning only those properly qualified to conduct advocacy are entitled to appear. Whilst some solicitors have “higher rights of audience”, we always recommend the instruction of a specialist barrister. The identification and selection of your advocate is one of the most important steps in the whole process.
What happens at a trial?
First of all, a jury of 12 men and women are selected from a panel. Once the jurors have been ‘sworn in’, the prosecution will open its case. This means that the barrister representing the prosecution will read a speech to the jury about the case. The prosecution will then call its witnesses to give evidence ‘in chief’ and then they will be cross-examined by your barrister.
After the prosecution closes its case, you will give evidence first ‘in chief’. You will then be cross-examined by the prosecution barrister. Then any defence witness will follow.
The prosecution gives a closing speech and then the defence gives a closing speech. Finally, the judge will ‘sum up’ the case to the jury. This means he or she will summarise the evidence in the case and tell the jury what it will need to decide before reaching a verdict.
The jury will then be sent out to reach a unanimous verdict (one on which they all agree). If this is not possible, after a certain period of time, the judge will give a ‘majority direction’. This means the judge is permitting the jury to reach a verdict on which at least ten agree (either 11/1 or 10/2). If the jury is still unable to reach a verdict, the judge will discharge the case. This is known as a ‘hung jury’. If this happens, the prosecution is entitled to have a retrial of the case with a new jury at a later date.