Which court will a case be heard in?

While all criminal cases begin in magistrates’ courts, some offences can only be tried in the Crown Court, some can only be heard at magistrates’ courts and others can be heard in either. The seriousness of the offence will dictate whether the case will remain in a magistrates’ court from start to finish, or will be referred up to the Crown Court.

Types of offences and where they can be tried

 In terms of deciding in which court a case will be heard, the law sets out three types of offences:

“Summary” offences

These are less serious cases such as low level motoring offences, disorderly behaviour, TV licence payment evasion and minor assaults. These can only be dealt with in magistrates’ courts.

“Either-way” offences

These are cases which can be heard in either court, such as theft, burglary and drug offences. Offences like these can vary greatly in seriousness. Theft for example could involve someone stealing anything from a chocolate bar to a priceless antique. Magistrates make the initial decision about whether a case is sufficiently serious to be heard in the Crown Court or will remain in the magistrates’ court. If they decide that it suitable for trial in the magistrates’ court, the defendant is then given the opportunity to choose whether their trial should take place in the Crown Court or the magistrates’ court.

“Indictable-only” offences

These are the most serious cases such as murder, rape and robbery and can only be tried in the Crown Court. These cases start with an appearance in a magistrates’ court which makes the initial decision about whether the defendant should be granted bail.

How is it decided where a trial will be heard?

  •  A decision is only required in cases which are either-way offences. In such cases the magistrates must first decide whether an offence is more suitable for trial in the magistrates’ court or the Crown Court. This is known as the allocation decision.
  • When deciding where cases should be heard, magistrates must follow the Sentencing Council allocation guideline and take account of the facts of the case and any legal complexities that might arise. They must also decide whether, if the defendant was to be convicted in the magistrates’ court, their sentencing powers would properly reflect the seriousness of the case. The maximum penalty the magistrates’ court can impose is six months in prison.