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The Criminal Court System and The Criminal Justice System


Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice responsible for the administration of courts and tribunals in England and Wales. This includes the Magistrates’ Courts, Crown Court and Court of Appeal, along with the employment tribunals, First-Tier and Upper Tribunal and Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) and Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission.

Magistrates’ Courts

All cases start in the Magistrates’ Court. District Judges or Lay Justices sit in the Magistrates’ Court trying cases and dealing with all pre-trial hearings.

These courtsdeal with less serious offences, particularly those known as ‘summary only’ offences, where the maximum penalty is up to 6 months’ imprisonment. Proceedings tend to be less formal, with barristers and solicitors only needing to wear business suits rather than wigs and gowns, and are generally dealt with quite quickly. A typical trial in the Magistrates’Court will last a couple of hours.Criminal barristers are instructed to prosecute and defend in these courts daily, particularly in the early stages of their careers.

At their first appearance at the Magistrates’ Court, the defendant will be expected to enter or indicate a plea of either guilty, or not guilty.  Trials or sentencing hearings can take place in either the Crown Court or the Magistrates’ Court, depending on how serious the case is. If the lower court decides the offence is so serious that it can only be tried in the Crown Court, then it will be sent there. However, if the lower court decides it can retain jurisdiction then the defendant has the option of electing trial by jury in the Crown Court.

You can learn more about the Magistrates’ Court by viewing some of the following:

The Magistrates’ Court

Inside The Magistrates’ Court

Criminal Courts

Crown Court

The Crown Court tries those criminal matters where the defendant has elected trial on an either-way offence, or where the matter is indictable only (so serious that they can only be tried in a Crown Court). Occasionally these courts can also hear matters being appealed from the Magistrates’ Courts. The Crown Court can impose maximum penalties of a potentially unlimited fine (that is, there is no upper limit to the amount the court can ask) or life imprisonment.

Unlike the lower courts, the person who makes a decision about matters of fact in the Crown Court is a panel of twelve randomly selected members of the public, sitting as a jury. The Judge makes decisions about the law, and is charged with overseeing proceedings, ensuring that both sides have a fair trial and adjudicating on any matters of law that may arise. For example, if one side wants to show the jury evidence which relies on hearsay, or which illustrates the bad character of another party, the Judge will hear submissions from both sides to decide whether or not this material goes before the jury.

Barristers and judges in these courts  wear special wigs and gowns and conduct themselves in a particular way. Fellow-barristers address one another as “my learned friend”, and in most cases the Judge will be addressed by counsel as “Your Honour”.

Because of the ritual of its courtroom proceedings, the weightiness of the matters being tried and the jury-oriented nature of its advocacy, Crown Court proceedings are a popular source for courtroom dramas, and tend to inform most people’s ideas of what court cases look like. The most famous Crown Court in England and Wales is probably the Central Criminal Court in London, known popularly as the Old Bailey.

You can learn more about the Crown Court by viewing some of these short videos:

The Crown Court

Inside The Crown Court

Crown Courts

Court of Appeal

Based at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) is the main appeal court for dealing with matters coming from the Crown Court. Once again, counsel will appear before a panel of Judges, this time a panel of up to three Judges who are addressed as “My Lord/Lady” or “Your Lordship/Ladyship”.

In the criminal section of the Court of Appeal, the court can hear appeals either on conviction or on sentence. On conviction, the court can be asked to consider if the original verdict, whether in the Magistrates’ Court or (more usually) the Crown Court was unsafe, usually because of some fundamental error in the trial process or because new evidence has come to light which, for good reason, could not be produced at the original trial. If the court finds a conviction is unsafe, they have the power to remove the original verdict and send the case back for a re-trial.

The court can also be asked to consider if a sentence was wrong in law (that is, the lower court simply did not have the power to impose the sentence they did). Find out more about the Court of Appeal here:

The Court of Appeal – Criminal Division

First Broadcast from The Court of Appeal

Inside The Court of Appeal

Other Resource

Supreme Court

Before 2009, the highest court of appeal in England and Wales was the House of Lords. Since then, this function has belonged to the Supreme Court. It consists of twelve Judges commonly referred to as Law Lords, overseen by the President (currently Baroness Hale of Richmond, the first woman to hold the office) and a Deputy (currently Lord Mance).

Normally the Judges of this court sit as a bench of five, though in particularly challenging or important cases this can be expanded to a bench of seven or nine. The Supreme Court will only hear cases which turn on a point of law, with the added threshold that it must be of general public importance.

Although the Supreme Court cannot overturn primary legislation (as courts can in other jurisdictions, like the USA) it can overturn secondary legislation which is found to be ultra vires, or outside the powers granted by primary legislation. It can also reinterpret, or change altogether, certain positions at common law. Cases which reach the Supreme Court are therefore likely to have far-reaching ramifications for the rest of the criminal justice system and criminal practice. Find out more about the Supreme Court here.


The National Probation Service works with offenders to address the underlying causes of their behaviour.Usually, probation will present recommendations to the court at the sentencing stage in the form of a ‘Pre-Sentence Report’. They administer a range of penalties and remedies, including curfews (with or without electronic tags), unpaid work or rehabilitation activity requirements (RAR). You will come to know them very well at the junior end of the Criminal Bar. Following part-privatisation in 2012, the National Probation Service now consists of 42 probation areas served by 35 probation trusts, funded by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which can be found here.