If you have been charged with a criminal offence your first court appearance will always take place in the Magistrates’ Court. Depending on the seriousness of the charges against you and whether or not you plead guilty or not guilty, your case will be heard in the aforementioned court or transferred to the Crown Court.

Following a police charge or receipt of a postal summons or written requisition, it is important to contact us as soon as possible so that we can begin preparing your case at an early stage. Each case is different, and your Magistrates’ Court solicitor will guide you through every step of the process and tailor their advice in accordance with the strength of the evidence and your instructions.

Where possible your solicitor will seek to obtain a copy of the prosecution’s evidence ahead of your first appearance at court and will conduct any necessary meetings with you ahead of the hearing. If the papers cannot be obtained in advance, they will be accessed on the day of your court hearing. You and your solicitor will have an opportunity to discuss the prosecution’s evidence before you are called into court.

Are magistrates the same as judges?

Magistrates are not judges and they do not have to be legally qualified (although they receive extensive training). They are appointed on a volunteer basis and can hear cases in the criminal court, the family court, or both.

An advisor provides legal advice to the magistrates and ensures they follow lawful processes throughout the hearing.

What is the difference between a summary only offence, either-way offence and indictable only offence?

A summary only offence is a term used to describe a minor offence that can be heard in the Magistrates’ Court. Examples include:

  • Minor assault
  • Traffic offences such as speeding and driving without insurance
  • Shoplifting
  • Minor criminal damage

Either-way offences can be heard in the Magistrate’s Court or Crown Court.  If the magistrates conclude that they have sufficient sentencing powers to deal with the case, the defendant can decide whether to let the case remain in the Magistrates’ Court or have it transferred to the Crown Court for a jury trial.

The most serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, and rape are indictable only offences. Although your case will begin in the Magistrates’ Court, it will automatically be transferred to the Crown Court.

What is a Magistrates’ Court summons?

A Magistrates’ Court summons is sent to you, normally by post, by the court. It will state the day and time you must attend, the alleged offences, and a summary of the facts. Police and other witness statements may also be included.

Never ignore a Magistrates’ Court summons. As soon as you can, contact a criminal defence solicitor who can advise and represent you.

What can I expect at the first hearing at the Magistrate’s Court?

You will be expected to indicate your plea. Your criminal defence solicitor will take you through the evidence and advise you on the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case. They will then obtain your full instructions and give you advice about whether you may wish to plead guilty or not guilty.

What happens if I plead guilty in the Magistrates’ Court?

If you plead guilty the magistrates, where possible, will proceed to consider possible sentences. This may be immediately, or they may adjourn the case for a pre-sentence report, which would involve you seeing the probation service. The probation service would then prepare a report to assist the court with the various sentencing options. If the magistrates think the offence is too serious for them to deal with, they can commit your case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

What happens if I plead not guilty in the Magistrates’ Court?

If you plead not guilty, the court will sometimes have to decide whether your case can be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court or whether it is so serious that it needs to be transferred to the Crown Court. If suitable for the Magistrates Court, a date will be set for your trial to take place and your case will be adjourned until then. Your solicitor will then proceed to prepare your case for trial and build a defence. This will include instructing any necessary experts, obtaining your further instructions, and finding and speaking to any defence witnesses.

What happens at a Magistrates’ Court trial?

The trial procedure at a Magistrates’ Court is as follows:

  • The prosecution will provide a summary of the case against you.
  • Although the witnesses would have provided statements, these cannot be presented in court unless your solicitor confirms they agree with the contents. If any statements are not agreed, the prosecution must call the witness to give live evidence under oath. Your solicitor will also have the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses in accordance with your instructions at trial.
  • Once all the witnesses have been examined, your interview will be read to the court and the prosecutor will close their case.
  • If the prosecution’s evidence is weak, your criminal defence solicitor may say to the magistrates that there is no case to answer. If they agree then the case will end, and you can leave.
  • Should the above step not be taken then your defence solicitor will present your case and call witnesses. This may include a witness providing evidence that you are of good character if this is your first offence. All witnesses will be cross examined by the prosecutor.
  • Your defence solicitor will close your case and the prosecutor will give a closing speech. Your defence solicitor will give a closing speech to the court summing up your case and drawing the Magistrate’s attention to any inconsistencies in the prosecution’s evidence.
  • The magistrates will leave the court to consider their verdict.

How long does a Magistrates’ Court trial last?

Magistrates’ Court trials normally last between five to six hours, however, this can be longer or shorter depending on the number of witnesses and the amount of evidence to be presented.

What should I bring to the Magistrates’ Court?

You will need to take the following to your hearing:

  • Your hearing letter with your case number.
  • Any documents you need or have been requested in the summons letter.
  • Food and drink, including water.
  • A face covering if you choose to wear one.
  • A book or some other quiet entertainment as there can be lengthy waits.

Regarding what to wear, it is best to present yourself as smartly as possible.

Your solicitor will fully prepare you on what to bring to the hearing.

Can the Magistrates’ Court send me to prison?

Yes, magistrates pass custodial sentences of up to 12 months. This was increased from six months in May 2022 in order to help address the backlog of criminal cases resulting from Coronavirus lockdowns. Magistrates can now deal with additional either-way offences that carry a maximum custodial sentence of up to 12 months.

Magistrates also have the power to issue a fine, community sentence, or a driving ban.

Reeds Solicitors for Magistrates Court Hearing

Receiving a Magistrates’ Court summons can be stressful and frightening, especially if you have never had dealings with the criminal justice system before. The most important action to take is to contact our experienced criminal defence solicitors as soon as you receive the summons so we can advise you and protect your interests.

For more information about our Magistrates Court Solicitor Team, view our services page here. If you have been arrested or are facing a police investigation, our criminal law solicitors can help.

Obtaining legal advice at an early stage is crucial. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact us through our contact page here. Alternatively you can phone 0333 240 7373, or email us at info@reeds.co.uk.