Criminal court

All criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court. Over 90% will be completed there

Who’s Who in the Criminal Court?

The Bench

If the case is being heard in open court, the bench will consist of two or three magistrates or one district judge.

The Legal Adviser

The Legal Adviser sits in front of the magistrates. They will read out the charge and ask the defendant to enter a plea. They provide the magistrates with legal advice, and help ensure the court runs smoothly.

Court Ushers

The court usher will call a defendant into court.

The Crown Prosecutor (CPS)

The Crown Prosecutor presents the facts of the offence to the court.

The Defence Solicitor

The solicitor will speak on behalf of the defendant in court. Unrepresented defendants may be represented by the Duty Solicitor.

Probation or Youth Offending Team

A probation officer will be present in adult court, providing advice to the court and preparing a pre-sentence report where appropriate. 

A representative from the Youth Offending Team may be present in the youth court. They provide information about the defendant and will prepare a pre-sentence report.

What cases are dealt with in the criminal magistrates’ court?

A magistrates’ court will hear all summary only offences. These include:

  • Criminal assault where there is no significant injury
  • Minor criminal damage
  • Motoring offences


It can also deal with some more serious offences, known as ‘either way’ offences. These can either be heard in a magistrates’ court or be sent up to Crown Court if defendants elect to have a jury trial, or the bench believe a likely sentence would be outside their  maximum sentencing level.

  • Burglary
  • Drugs offences


You can see a complete list of cases dealt with in the magistrates’ court here.

The Crown Court deal with all indictable offences such as murder, rape and robbery. Normally, the first hearing for these cases will be in a magistrates’ court before they are sent to the Crown Court.

What do magistrates do in the criminal court?

Magistrates listen carefully to all evidence and decide:

  • Whether a defendant is granted bail
  • Whether someone is innocent or guilty
  • The appropriate sentence when a defendant pleads or is found guilty
  • Whether a case should be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing


What sentences can a magistrates’ court give?

The court can order either one or a combination of the following:

  • A custodial sentence of between 5 days and 6 months
  • A suspended sentence
  • A community order
  • A fine
  • Order for compensation
  • Disqualification or banning orders eg driving ban


If the court decides a custodial sentence of more than 6 months is necessary, the case will be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing.

How are sentences in the magistrates’ court decided?

Magistrates follow a decision-making process set out in sentencing guidelines from the Sentencing Council as well as any relevant case law to reach a just sentence which is appropriate to the specific circumstances of the case, and the individual being sentenced.

The guidelines provide a starting point and sentencing range depending on the categories of culpability and harm. The magistrates should then consider the effect of any aggravating or mitigating factors (which can relate to the offence or be specific to the offender). These might include:

  • Whether the offender has any previous convictions
  • Whether the offence was committed while the defendant was on bail or licence
  • Whether the offender has any relevant vulnerabilities


The bench will also take into account any guilty plea, and whether any ancillary orders are required

If the likely sentence is to be a community penalty or a prison sentence then the bench should ask the probation service to prepare a pre-sentencing report (PSR) that might contain:

  • A medical or psychiatric report
  • Personal circumstances of the offender where relevant to the impact of sentencing eg if they are a caregiver
  • Details of risk of re-offending


There are five purposes of sentencing:

  • The punishment of offenders.
  • The reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence).
  • The reform and rehabilitation of offenders.
  • The protection of the public.
  • The reparation by offenders to persons affected by their offence.


Although all five may be seen as potentially appropriate in a particular case, sentencers must include a punitive element unless it would be unjust to do so.

Once the bench have agreed the appropriate sentence, the presiding justice will make the pronouncement in court, which will include the reasons why this sentence is being given.

The MA has its own dedicated Adult Court Committee with members who are experienced specialists in the area.

If you are attending criminal court as a victim, defendant or a witness, please visit our list of useful resources where you will find more information.