For adults, all criminal cases begin in magistrates’ courts but some offences can be tried only in the Crown Court, some only in magistrates’ courts and others in either court. 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.

“Summary” offences – can be heard only in magistrates’ court

These are less serious cases such as low level motoring offences, disorderly behaviour, TV licence payment evasion and minor assaults.

“Either-way” offences – can be heard in magistrates’ court or the Crown Court

These include cases such as theft, burglary and drug offences that can vary greatly in seriousness. Theft, for example, could involve someone stealing anything from a chocolate bar to a priceless antique.

Magistrates decide whether a case is sufficiently serious to be heard in the Crown Court. But if they decide the case should stay in the magistrates’ court, the defendant can then choose whether their trial should take place in the Crown Court instead.

“Indictable only” offences – can be heard only in the Crown Court

These are the most serious cases such as murder, rape and robbery. These cases start with an appearance in a magistrates’ court when the magistrates will decide whether the defendant should be granted bail.

How do magistrates decide?

A decision is required only in cases that are either-way offences. In these 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 Council’s 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 for a single offence.

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