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A guide to the Magistrates’ Court trial process

A Magistrates’ Court deals with minor offences and holds preliminary hearings for more serious offences. So if an individual is accused of committing a criminal offence and their case is being heard with a trial in the Magistrates’ Court, they would have pleaded not guilty to that offence – otherwise they would plead guilty and there would be no need for a trial and the case will go to sentence. With any trial at a Magistrates’ Court, the trial is the process of deciding whether the defendant (the accused) is guilty or not guilty of a criminal offence. The prosecution must therefore prove he or she is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

What is the trial process in a Magistrates’ Court?

At the start of the trial process, the defendant will be formally identified and required to confirm their not guilty plea. The prosecutor will then open the case and provide a summary of the allegation against the defendant. They will then call upon witnesses to provide their evidence, whilst the defence advocate may cross-examine witnesses, asking questions to discredit or challenge the witnesses’ versions of events. Witnesses are not allowed to rely on their statements to guide them through their evidence. If a witness is having difficulty remembering what happened, the prosecution can ask the judge for permission (to leave the court), to allow the witness to refresh their memory from their witness statement. Depending on the situation, there may be CCTV evidence available, which will also be played in court.

In a Magistrates’ trial, you hear from the defence after the prosecution case. The accused can decide whether they wish to provide evidence but this decision will have been discussed with their advocate before the trial. There may be a number of witnesses who saw or heard the incident. Character witnesses are often called upon if a defendant has no previous convictions, and they will give evidence to demonstrate he or she is not the type of person who would commit the offence. At the end of the defence case, the prosecutor will give a closing speech summarising their case, aiming to show why they believe the accused is guilty. The defence will then provide their closing speech, detailing why the defendant should be found not guilty of the offence.

Finally, the Magistrates or District Judge will then retire to consider their verdict. If the accused is found not guilty, they will simply be acquitted of the offence and the case will be closed. If, however, they are found guilty, the court will consider the sentence. They may sentence immediately or adjourn the sentence to allow the probation service to consider a pre-sentence report. If that is the case, they will be required to return to court on another date for sentencing.

What is the maximum sentence in a Magistrates’ Court?

The maximum sentence for one offence in the Magistrates’ Court is 6 months, whilst the minimum custodial sentence is five days. That said, if an individual is found guilty of a crime that could have been heard in the Crown Court, the Magistrates can commit the case to Crown Court for sentence, if they feel they do not have power to sentence the offence for long enough. In addition to custodial sentences, there are many other common types of sentences, including suspended sentences, community orders, fines, compensation and discharge. Magistrates can also serve more specialist sentences such as anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), confiscation orders, disqualifications from the ownership of animals, disqualifications from driving, football banning orders, forfeiture and destruction of drugs, restraining orders and sexual offence prevention orders. No matter what sentence is handed out, there is an automatic right to appeal against a sentence or conviction from the Magistrates’ Court, but the appeal must be lodged within 21 days of sentencing.

Who are Magistrates?

Magistrates are the “Justices of the Peace”. They are local people who volunteer their time, so they do not require any formal legal qualifications, however, they will have undertaken a training programme, including court and prison visits. They are given legal and procedural advice from qualified clerks, whilst they’re legally trained and help to ensure everything runs properly and that all of the correct procedures are followed. Clerks will also advise the Magistrates on legal matters, ensuring only admissible evidence is put before the court. We’ve also briefly touched on District Judges. They are full-time members of the judiciary who can also hear cases in Magistrates’ Courts, yet they generally only deal with the longer and more complex matters.

Common types of offences

There are two categories of offences the Magistrates’ Court has the power to deal with: ‘summary only offences’ and ‘either way offences’. A ‘summary only offence’ will typically be the most minor of crimes, such as common assault and speeding. An ‘either way offence’ includes medium-level seriousness cases like theft, burglary and ABH assault (actual bodily harm). These offences can also be dealt with in the Crown Court. Over 95 percent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court, whilst the majority of the cases come from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), however, there are many other prosecution agencies such as RSPCA, Environment Agency, Department of Work and Pensions, and English Nature.

If you are facing a Magistrates’ court trial, Noble Solicitors has the knowledge, experience and drive to fight for you, protecting your rights. We’ve represented many individuals in Magistrates’ Courts throughout the UK, drawing on our extensive knowledge to provide bespoke solutions for the most complex situations. If you’d like to learn more about us and how we can help you, please call us today on 07000 81 82 83 or email us at

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