Skip Main Navigation
Share this page

Adult court

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

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

The criminal court is where all criminal cases start. We often refer to this as the adult court. Criminal cases involving those aged 10 to 17 are dealt with by the youth court.

Magistrates will hear all summary only offences, including:

  • criminal assault where there is no significant injury
  • minor criminal damage
  • motoring offences.

Magistrates sitting in this court 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 to the crown court if defendants elect to have a jury trial, or the bench believe a likely sentence would be outside their maximum sentencing level.

The crown court deals 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.

The Sentencing Council provides a complete list of offences dealt with in the magistrates’ courts.

Who’s who in the adult 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 provide the magistrates with legal advice and help to make sure the court runs smoothly. They will read out the charge and ask the defendant to enter a plea.
  • Court ushers: The court usher calls a defendant into court.
  • The crown prosecutor: The crown prosecutor presents the charges against the defendant on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) presents the facts of the offence to the court.
  • The defence solicitor: The solicitor will speak on behalf of the defendant in court. A duty solicitor may represent unrepresented defendants.
  • Probation team: A probation officer will be present in adult court, providing advice to the court and preparing a pre-sentence report where appropriate.

What sentences can a magistrates’ court give?

A magistrates’ court can order either one or a combination of the following:

  • a custodial sentence of between five days and 12 months
  • a suspended sentence
  • a community order
  • a fine
  • an order for compensation
  • disqualification or banning orders, for example a driving ban.

If the court decides a custodial sentence of more than six 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 the sentencing guidelines, as well as any relevant case law, to reach a just sentence that is appropriate to the specific circumstances of the case, and the individual being sentenced.

The sentencing guidelines provide a starting point and sentencing range depending on the categories of culpability and harm. The magistrates 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). This might contain:

  • a medical or psychiatric report
  • personal circumstances of the offender where relevant to the impact of sentencing, for example if they are a caregiver
  • details of risk of reoffending.

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

What is the MA doing?

The MA has its own dedicated adult court committee with members who are experienced specialists in the area. The committee steers MA policy and research related to the adult court.

Support for victims, defendants and witnesses

Although the MA cannot provide support directly if you are attending criminal court as a victim, defendant or a witness, our list of useful resources will signpost you to other organisations that can help.