If someone is charged with a criminal offence, they must go to a court to answer that charge.

There are three types of criminal court in the UK:

For adults, almost all criminal cases start in the magistrates’ courts, where the magistrates will determine whether the case should be heard in a magistrates’ court or the Crown Court. How magistrates decide which court will hear a case depends on which type of offence it is and how serious.

Magistrates’ courts

There are over 150 magistrates’ courts across England and Wales.

The vast majority of adult criminal cases are completed in the magistrates’ courts. Magistrates usually deal with less-serious cases and will pass the more serious cases to the Crown Court.

Who’s who in magistrates’ court

Cases are usually heard by either three magistrates or a district judge (magistrates’ court), supported by a legal adviser. There is no jury in a magistrates’ court.

This video from HM Courts and Tribunals Service shows who’s who in the magistrates court.

Sentencing in magistrates’ courts

Magistrates have sentencing powers that allow them to impose a range of sentences, including unlimited fines, bans, community orders and up to six months’ custody for a single offence and 12 months in total.

Find out more about the different types of sentence and see the guidelines for sentencing offences in magistrates’ courts.

Crown Court

The Crown Court deals with more serious criminal offences. Examples include:

  • murder
  • rape
  • robbery

The judge makes sure the trial proceeds in a fair way. They decide on matters of law during a trial and, if the defendant is found guilty, decide on the sentence.

There will usually be a jury made up of 12 people from the general public who will listen to the evidence presented during a trial and decide if the defendant is guilty of the offence.

This video from HM Courts and Tribunals Service shows who’s who in the Crown Court.

Sentencing in the Crown Court

Judges in the Crown Court can give out prison sentences and community orders. Find out more about the different types of sentence and see the guidelines for sentencing offences in the Crown Court.

Youth courts

Youth courts are for children and young people aged 10 to 17. They work like magistrates’ courts, with cases heard by either three magistrates or a district judge (magistrates’ court). There is no jury.

Sentences are quite different in a youth court as they specifically address the needs of young offenders. Youth courts can give a range of sentences including detention and training orders. Find out more about types of sentencing for young people.

For very serious crimes where the defendant is under 18, the case starts in the youth court but maybe passed to the Crown Court.

Members of the public are not allowed into courtrooms in youth courts.

Find out more

The information on this page is a summary only and is not a substitute for legal advice.