Criminal trial procedure

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This article describes the procedures by which criminal cases are assigned to either the magistrates' court or to the Crown Court, and in outline the processes of trial and sentencing that follow from this determination. Note that at the time of writing (November 2002) these procedures are under review, and substantial changes are anticipated.

Step A: determination of class of offence It must first be determined whether the offence(s) under consideration come into the category of summary-only, either way, or indictable offences. A complicating factor arises where the accused is charged with a number of different offences, some indictable and some not. s.15 of the Crime and disorder act (1998) indicates that magistrates may remit to the Crown Court offences which may normally be handled summarily, if these offences are related to indictable offences and may result in imprisonment. Otherwise, they have to be treated as separate offences for the purposes of trial.

The categorization of offences is primarily controlled by Statute. Obviously, serious offences such as murder and rape are expected to be heard in the Crown Court. Less serious matters such as shoplifting are heard in a magistrates' court. In between are a large number of 'either way' offences, such as burglary and assaults, for which jurisdiction may be claimed for either court.

  • If it is indictable only, proceed to step B: committal for trial in Crown Court.
  • If it is either-way, and the accused is an adult, go to step C: 'plea before venue' proceedings.
  • If it is either-way, and the accused is a child, go to step D: mode of trial proceedings.
  • If the offence is summary only, then the case proceeds to step E: summary trial by magistrates.

Step B: committal for trial in Crown Court If the offence is indictable-only, or the magistrates have decided to declient jurisdiction in an either-way offence, then the defendant will be subject to committal proceedings for trial.

In many cases, the defendant accepts that he or she has a prima facie case to answer, and the committal hearing is a 10-minute formality. However, if the defendant makes a submission that there is no case to answer, or is without legal representation, then magistrates must consider the evidence of the prosecution and make a determination whether the case should proceed to trial. The prosecution may offer written statements and an oral summary, after which the magistrates will make a decision. It is not permissible to adduce evidence for the defence, nor to call live witnesses for either side.

  • If the magistrates decide that there is a case to answer (which is most likely), then the cases will be listed for trial in the Crown Court, and the next encounter between the accused and the judiciary will be the plea and directions hearing (step J).
  • If the magistrates decide that there is no case to answer, the accused will be discharged of that offence (step M). Bear in mind that there may be multiple charges, any of which can be discharged, but the accused will still have to stand trial for any undischarged offences.

Step C: 'plea before venue' proceedings In order to reduce the number of cases where the accused was committed for trial at the Crown Court and then offered a guilty plea -- at great expense to the public -- s.49 of the Criminal procedure and investigations act (1996) introduced the 'plea before venue' procedure into the mode of trial process. In this procedure, the accused is offered the opportunity to state which way he intends to plead. This process only applies to adult defendants; for children the mode of trial proceedings (step D) will be initiated without requiring the accused to offer an indication of plea.

  • If the accused declines to answer, then a full mode of trial hearing must be held (step D).
  • If the accused states that he would plead 'not guilty', then a full mode of trial hearing must be held (step D).
  • If the accused states an intention to plead guilty, then we proceed directly to step F: magistrates' court sentencing proceedings.

The CPIA states that the accused must be told that if he indicates a guilty plea, a conviction will be entered without further ado. He must also be told that the magistrates may commit him for sentencing in the Crown Court if their sentencing powers are not extensive enough. So why should the accused play along with the system at all? The answer is because he can expect his sentence to be 'discounted' to the greatest extent if he pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity. But note that there is nothing to stop a defendant declining to offer a plea, being committed to the Crown Court, and pleading guilty there. Nor is there anything to prevent him pleading not guilty and demanding his right to a jury trial.

Step D: mode of trial proceedings Mode of trial proceedings are held to determine whether the accused should be tried summarily or on indictment with a jury. Such proceedings are only appropriate in 'either-way' offences, for which magistrates can accept jurisdiction or commit for trial in the Crown Court. Under the 'plea before venue' procedure, there will only be a mode of trial hearing for an adult defendant if he indicates an intention to plead 'not guilty' or declines to indicate his plea.

In decideing whether to accept or decline jurisdiction, the magistrates will have regard for the severity or the offence, their powers of sentencing, and any representations made by the accused or the prosecution.

  • If the magistrates decline jursidiction or the accused exercises his right to opt for a Crown Court hearing, the case will be remitted to the Crown Court, and the next court appearance by the accused will usually be step J: plea and directions hearing for the Crown Court.
  • If the magistrates accept jurisdiction, proceed to step E: summary trial by magistrates.

Step E: summary trial by magistrates In a magistrates' hearing, the court will first deal with any matters of law that are relevant to the case, particular those related to admissibility of evidence.

Next, the prosection will offer its evidence and tender witnesses. At the end of this stage it is open for the defendant to submit that there is no case to answer. If this submission succeeds (which is rare), then the charge is dismissed and, if there are no remaining charges the accused is discharged (step M).

Assuming that it is determined that there is a case to answer, the defence offers its evidence and tenders witnesses. It remains open for the defence to decide whether to call the accused as a witness or not; it is now permissible for the magistrates to draw adverse conclusions 'as seem proper' from the accused's failure to testify (see: Right to silence).

The magistrates make a decision on conviction or acquital in private, but may consult their clerk for legal advice.

  • If the magistrates decide that no charges have been proved against the defendant, he is acquited (step N).
  • If any charge has been proved, the accused is held to be guilty, and we proceed to step F: magistrates' court sentencing proceedings.

Step F: magistrates' court sentencing proceedings A magistrates' court must sentence or commit for sentence any defendent who has been convicted in a summary trial, or who has entered a guilty plea in a plea-before-venue procedure. The court may decide that its sentencing powers are inadequate to impose a stiff enough penalty. This often happens because the magistrates are, in principle, in ignorance of the defendant's previous convictions. If it turns out that the defendant is a hardened villain with a string of previous, it may be more appropriate to commit for sentence.

  • If the magistrates accept the responsibility for sentencing, proceed to step G: sentencing by magistrates.
  • If the magistrates decline the responsibility for sentencing, proceed to step H: committal for sentence in the Crown Court.

Step G: sentencing by magistrates A magistrates' court can sentence any defendent who has been convicted in a summary trial, or who has entered a guilty plea in a plea-before-venue procedure, although it is open to the court to commit the convicted person to the Crown Court for sentencing.

When passing sentence, magistrates will have regard for the defendant's previous convictions. The court can impose a probation order, community service order, combination order (both probation and community service), fines up to £5000, and custody of up to 1 year in total (6 months per single offence). It is also possible for the court to order compensation to be paid to the victim.

Step H: committal for sentence in the Crown Court Magistrates can commit any person found guilty in a summary trial, or a person who pleads guilty in the plea-before-venue procedure. It is likely that bail will be withdrawn at this stage, as a custodial sentence is likely in a case of such severity. In any event, go to step L: Crown Court sentencing proceedings.

Step J plea and directions hearing for the Crown Court A criminal case will reach the Crown Court in the following circumstances: (i) it is statutorily classifed as indicatable-only; (ii) it is classified 'either-way', and the defendant insists on a jury trial; (iii) it is classified either-way and the magistrates decline jurisdiction. In either case, the defendants plea is taken, and the court makes a determination whether to proceed to trial. Even if the defendant pleads guilty, the court has the discretion to discharge (Step M). This may be exercised if the court believes that there is insufficient evidence to establish a proper case against the defendant. If there is a case to answer, proceed to trial (step K).

Step K: Crown Court trial Trials in the Crown Court are usually with judge and jury. The outcome may be conviction (go to step L), acquital (step M) or discharge (N). There are additional outcomes if the accused has raised a defence of insanity.

Step L: Crown Court sentencing proceedings Crown Court sentencing powers are mostly set by statute. Under the prevailing legislation, convictions for a criminal offense can attract a fine (see: Finesentencing), a Custodial sentence or a Community sentence, of which there are various metas.

Step M: discharge If the accused is discharged on one or more offences, usually because magistrates have ruled that the prosecution has not established a case to answer, then that offence is struck out. If all offences are struck out, then the accused is discharged completely, and thereby freed from remand or bail. However, a discharge is not an acquital. If the accused is discharged then he has not technically stood trial for that offence, and the 'double jeopardy' rule does not apply. It remains open for the prosecution to find further evidence and prosecute again. It can even seek to 'bill' the accused via the High Court, that is, bypass the committal proceedings completely and get a Crown Court trial ordered directly. This is, in fact, unusual in practice.

A defendant who is discharged can apply for costs from central funds.

Step N: acquital If the defendant is not found guilty of any charge after a trial has been held, then he is acquited and, where necessary, released from remand or bail. An acquital differs from a discharge in that it results from the finding of a trial; a discharge results when it is held that insufficient evidence has been adduced to show that there is a case to answer. The 'double jeopardy' rule stipulates that a defendant who has been acquited cannot be tried again for the same offence.

A defendant who is acquited can apply for costs from central funds.

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