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Tuesday, 2 October 2023

Magistrates' court hearing - what happens

If you have been charged with a crime and have to go to a magistrates' court hearing you should prepare beforehand. Find out about what you need to do before your hearing, contacting the court for advice and what happens on the day.

Before your hearing

It's a good idea to get legal advice about your case, and how you are going to plea

If you want to know what to expect on the day, you can contact the magistrates’ court before your hearing. Court staff can explain court procedures and what to expect on the day. They can’t discuss your case with you.

If you’re remanded in custody, you will be brought to the hearing.

It’s a good idea to get legal advice about your case and your plea (the plea is whether you admit or deny the charge).

If you’re disabled

If you’re disabled or need extra support while at court, you can get help.

If you don’t turn up at court

If you don’t go to court for your hearing, you may be charged with an extra offence of ‘failing to attend court’. This can happen even if you’re found not guilty of the original charge against you.

Arriving at court

When you arrive at the court you need to report to reception. You should arrive in good time.

A note is made that you have arrived and you are told where to wait.

A court usher (someone who organises the courtroom) tells you when your hearing starts.

Approaching a witness

You (or anyone with you) should not speak to a witness who is connected to your case.

What happens during the hearing

The basic process of a hearing is as follows.

1. You plead guilty or not guilty

The court legal adviser reads out the offence you have been charged with. You are then asked if you want to plead guilty or not guilty.

If you say nothing, the court treats it as if you are not guilty.

If you plead guilty at this stage, there’s no hearing and you are convicted and sentenced by the court. You may get a less severe sentence than if you plead not guilty but are later convicted.

If the time period between being charged and being in court is short (for example, one day), the court may adjourn (postpone) your hearing. This is so that everyone involved in the case can prepare for it.

See ‘Being sentenced by a court - an overview’ to find out about different types of sentences.

2. The prosecution ‘put their case’ against you

If you plead not guilty the prosecution lawyer states why they think you committed the crime.

They do this by ‘presenting evidence’ in court - for example, a witness may say they saw you committing the crime.

3. You defend your case

You or your legal adviser can challenge what the prosecution say and give your own evidence. If you decide to give evidence you ‘swear’ to tell the truth.

It’s a criminal offence to lie during the hearing and you could get a prison sentence if you do.

4. The court makes its decision

After thinking about the evidence, the magistrates (or judge) will decide whether you’re guilty or not guilty of the crime.

If you’re found not guilty

If you’re found not guilty, you are ‘acquitted’ - this means you are free to leave.

If you’re found guilty

If you’re found guilty of committing the crime, you will be sentenced by the court.

At this stage, your legal adviser will try and lessen the sentence you are likely to get (called ‘mitigation’). For example, they may tell the judge about your personal circumstances if these can explain why you committed the crime.

The court may let you know what your sentence is straight away.

If you are sentenced at a later date

The court may not sentence you on the day because it needs more information about you (called a ‘pre-sentence report’). For example, if you have a mental health condition, the judge might want medical information about you from your doctor before making a decision.

There’s also a limit on the level of sentence a magistrates’ court can give. If the sentence you deserve is more than the court can give your case is sent to the Crown Court. A Crown Court judge will then decide what your sentence is.

See ‘Magistrates’ courts - what they do’ to find out when this can happen.

What happens to you if sentencing is delayed

If the magistrates’ court needs more time (or the sentence needs to be decided at the Crown Court), the court decides whether you:

  • can go home on ‘court bail’ until you’re sentenced - but you may have to stick to certain conditions, like reporting regularly to a police station
  • are remanded in custody

The court’s decision is based on whether it thinks you may:

  • commit a crime while on bail
  • not come back to court for sentencing

If you disagree with the court’s decision

If you disagree with the court’s decision - for example, you think the sentence is too harsh - you can appeal.

See ‘Appealing - if you disagree with a magistrates’ court verdict’ if you want to appeal.

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