Defendants (criminal proceedings)

England and Wales

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England and Wales

Where will the trial be held?

All criminal cases start in the Magistrates' Court. There are three possible ways the case may then proceed.

For minor offences the whole trial must be conducted in the Magistrates’ Court either by three lay magistrates or by a District Judge.

For more serious offences the trial can be conducted in the Magistrates’ Court or in a Crown Court by a judge and jury of 12 people.

The magistrates or District Judge will consider which type of trial is most suitable in your case after hearing your lawyer make representations on your behalf. If suitable it will be tried in the Magistrates’ Court, if not or if you insist on a trial in the Crown Court it will be transferred to that court.  All trials of adults are held in public.

If you are under 18, unless the offence charged is a very serious one, the trial will be heard in a youth court by a judge or by three specially trained magistrates. The public will not be admitted.

Can the charges be changed during the trial?

The charges can be changed at a preliminary hearing but usually not once the court has started to hear evidence. Less serious charges must be brought within six months of the offence. You can plead guilty to some or all of the charges.  The prosecutor may agree to accept your plea of guilty to a lesser crime than the one you were charged with.

Do I have to be present at the trial?

It is a criminal offence not to attend court when required.  Moreover the case can go ahead in your absence. For minor offences, it is often possible to be present through a lawyer, or to plead guilty by post, or to allow the trial to proceed in your absence.  In the Crown Court the trial cannot usually be held without your presence. However, if you disrupt proceedings or abscond, a trial can continue without you. Failing to turn up (without good reason) is a criminal offence.

Can I participate at the trial by video link?

Normally this is not possible, although for some hearings you can be produced from prison or a police station by way of a video link. The magistrates or judge and prosecutor are in the court. Your legal advisor can be either at the police station or in court and will be able to see and hear you on the video link.

Will I have an interpreter if I don't understand what's happening?

If you do not understand English the court will provide an interpreter for you.

Will I have a lawyer?

Generally, you do not need to have a lawyer with you in court but you are strongly advised to have one. In certain trials you must have a lawyer, such as rape cases or those with young witnesses.

Can I change my lawyer?

Yes, see Factsheet 1.

Do I need to give evidence at the trial?

You can give evidence at the trial but cannot be made to do so. Your lawyer will advise whether you should.  Your failure to give evidence without good reason may count against you, but you cannot be convicted solely because you remained silent at trial.

What are my rights in relation to the evidence against me?

If you agree, evidence can be read or summarised. If you dispute the evidence, then the witness will normally be required to attend court to give the evidence, so that you can challenge it by asking questions. If the prosecutor uses documents as evidence against you he must tell your lawyer before the trial.  Your lawyer can challenge the document. Any witness who gives evidence against you can be questioned by your lawyer to challenge their account.

Can I produce evidence on my behalf?

Yes.  The evidence might be documents or physical evidence.  You can also ask witnesses to give evidence for you, and the judge can make them come to court. Your lawyer and the prosecutor will ask them questions.

Will information about my criminal record be taken into account?

Before the trial the prosecutor will gather information about your criminal record. This may include convictions in other countries. In certain situations the information will be revealed to the court, but your lawyer will be able to challenge whether that should happen. Even if your criminal record is taken into account by the court, you will not be convicted simply because you have a criminal record.

What happens at the end of the trial?

After all the evidence has been given, the decision (“a verdict”) is made whether you are guilty or not guilty. In the Magistrates’ Court, the magistrates decide on the verdict. In the Crown Court the jury alone decide the verdict.  If the verdict is not guilty (you are “acquitted”), the case ends. If there are no other charges you are free to leave the court. If the verdict is guilty (you are “convicted”), the lawyers then make submissions about sentence. There may be a separate court hearing for sentencing.

What sentence will I receive?

The sentence will depend on the seriousness of the crime.  The court will follow national guidelines.  For every offence there is a maximum sentence; for some there are also minimum sentences.

More information about possible sentences is available here. They include:

  • Imprisonment.  This may be indeterminate or fixed term.  The court will explain how much of this you are likely to serve in prison. Sentences of less than 12 months may be suspended (served in the community, under fixed conditions).  The time you have already served in prison awaiting trial will usually count towards the sentence
  • community orders (which may involve several conditions such as doing unpaid work in the local community)
  • fine (a monetary penalty)
  • compensation (money paid to the victim)
  • deportation (return to your country only in the case of a serious crime)
  • disqualification (for example, from driving).

What is the role of the victim during the trial?

The victim is not a party to the proceedings, but may give evidence at your trial.  In deciding the sentence against you the judge will consider a statement from the victim about the impact of the crime.  The judge cannot award civil damages against you but can make a sentence of a compensation order. It is possible for the victim to bring a private prosecution against you.

Related links

Going to Court

The court process

Appearing via live link

Sentencing guidelines

Prisoners’ Families helpline

Life in prison

Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (as amended)

Magistrates Courts Act 1980 (as amended)

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (as amended)

Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (as amended)

Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (as amended)

Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing ) Act 2000 (as amended)

Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended)

UK Borders Act 2007 (as amended)

Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (as amended)

Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (as amended)

Last update: 01/12/2016

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