If you are charged with an offence, you will usually have to go to court. In some cases you will have the opportunity to plead guilty by post. It is often important to get legal advice, especially if your case is serious.

All cases start in a magistrates’ court. The magistrates will decide either that your case can be dealt with in the magistrates’ court or to pass it on to the Crown Court, which deals with more serious offences. If your case passes to the Crown Court, you will either be bailed or have to go to prison before your next court date.

Pleading guilty

If you plead guilty at the outset your case will not go to trial and you could be sentenced immediately in the magistrates’ court. For more serious offences you will have to go to the Crown Court to be sentenced. Find out more about sentencing hearings.

If you plead guilty you will get a reduction in your sentence. To qualify for the maximum level of reduction (one third), a defendant must plead at the first court hearing. Defendants who plead later will serve longer sentences than those who accept their guilt and plead at this early stage. The Council’s guideline, Reduction in Sentence for a Guilty Plea, sets out how the level of reduction is determined. The purpose of the guideline is to encourage those who are going to plead guilty to do so as early in the court process as possible.

Pleading not guilty

If you plead not guilty your case will go to trial.

At a trial, the prosecution will have to prove that you are guilty of the offence and will present evidence to the court. This may include calling witnesses to testify.

You will be able to challenge the prosecution and, if you choose to give your own evidence, this will be on oath, where you must swear to tell the truth. Usually your lawyer will act as your defence but you do have the right to represent yourself in court without a lawyer.

The magistrates or, if you are in Crown Court, the jury will decide whether the prosecution has proved that you are guilty. Otherwise, you will be found not guilty.

If you are found not guilty you are free to leave.

If you are found guilty you will be given a sentence by the magistrates or the judge. In the sentencing hearing you or, if you have one, your lawyer will be able to explain about your personal circumstances and the circumstances of the offence from your point of view. This is called mitigation and can help to reduce the severity of the sentence. The sentencing hearing usually takes place straight after the trial.

Information for young defendants

If you are under 18 years of age, your case will usually be heard in a youth court.

Find out more

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