Making an appearance in court

How is a person called to court?

A defendant or witness can be called to court by a summons, or because they are on bail, or as a result of their arrest leading to criminal charges and then a court hearing.

Being summoned to court

A court summons is most commonly used in situations involving breach of bail conditions or, for example, for non-payment of council tax. In order for the magistrates to serve a summons, the prosecutor must provide a detailed account of the offence that has been committed and submit it to the Magistrates’ Court, or the court clerk.

The police can also apply to the magistrates for an arrest warrant for reasons including that a court summons on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure a witness attends trial; or that a suspect’s address is not so established that a summons on its own would be sufficient.

Serving a summons

If a court summons is granted, it must then be served on the person ordered to attend court. The summons can be served either in person, ie. by hand; or in the case of a minor offence a summons may be served by recorded delivery or registered post.

The defendant has the option to plead guilty to a summary offence via post, providing the maximum penalty for the offence does not exceed 3 months’ imprisonment. If the defendant chooses to plead guilty by post, they do not need to attend court and the matter will be dealt with in their absence. This is most common in the case of traffic offences.

Classification of offences

There are three different categories of criminal offences: summary offences, indictable offences and either way (or hybrid) offences.

Summary offences

These are minor crimes and are only dealt with at the Magistrates’ Court. They are heard by a magistrate sitting alone, and the defendant does not have to be in attendance. Summary offences include offensive behaviour, minor assaults, some road traffic offences, and damage to property.

Indictable offences

These are the most serious offences such as rape, murder and other serious violent offences. Trials of indictable offences are almost always heard in the Crown Court in front of a judge and jury. Typical examples of indictable offences also include drugs offences, people trafficking and manslaughter.

That said, all trials start at the Magistrates’ Court and defendants on an indictment will be sent to the Crown Court for trial (or sentencing in the case of a guilty plea).

Either way offences

An either way offence (also known as hybrid offences) is an offence that may be tried at Magistrates’ Court or in the Crown Court. These types of crimes may include property offences, such as theft or burglary, and some violent offences.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, they can elect for a trial by jury at the Crown Court if they wish. Otherwise, the magistrates can decide whether or not to send the case to the Crown Court. This may depend on whether they have adequate sentencing powers in relation to the offence charged, or because of the seriousness of the offence charged.

Initial hearing at the Magistrates’ Court

Every adult charged with an indictable offence will attend the Magistrates’ Court for an initial hearing, and the defendant will then be sent to the Crown Court for a plea and case management hearing listed. If the offence is an either way offence, the defendant may be sent to the Crown Court for trial.

In all other cases, the Magistrates’ Court will discuss potential bail, legal aid funding and any issues regarding evidence or witnesses.

The defendant will then be given a statement containing the evidence against them, the details of the offence they have been accused of, and the date and place where the trial is to take place. They will then have the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty.

Plea and case management hearings at the Crown Court

At a plea and case management hearing in the Crown Court, the defendant will be asked to enter their plea to the charges put to him or her. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will proceed to sentencing at the next possible opportunity – most likely adjourning the case.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, both the prosecution and defence counsel will prepare their evidence for a full trial.

What is disclosure?

The concept of disclosure concerns the obligations on the prosecution and the defence to disclose any information they may have relating to the trial before the trial is held. The defence must disclose to the prosecution all the evidence they intend relying on in court, including detailed information about witnesses and any experts they intend calling to give evidence, or who have produced expert reports for the purposes of the trial. Likewise, the prosecution must make disclosure to the defence.

Plea bargaining

Plea bargaining involves the negotiations carried out between the defence and prosecution lawyers regarding the outcome of a case. For instance, the prosecution may agree to substitute a lesser charge if the defence guarantees a guilty plea. For plea bargaining to be effective, the trial judge must first approve it.

The trial

The burden of proof lies with the prosecution. This means it is for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime with which they have been charged.

The trial will begin with the prosecution outlining its case, and will call the prosecution witnesses who can be cross examined by the defence. The defence will then call its own witnesses, and they can then be cross-examined by the prosecution. Once the evidence is complete, summing up takes place and the verdict is pronounced. On a guilty verdict, sentencing will follow.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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