Partner Elizabeth Ridgeway gives five vital things you need to know about the Magistrates’ Court
1. What is a Magistrates’ Court?
Almost all criminal matters start out in the Magistrates’ Court. Whether you are accused of speeding or murder, all cases start there. It is primarily a summary criminal court which tries summary-only offences. More serious or “indictable only” matters will be sent to the Crown Court. The Magistrates’ Court does not deal with personal injury compensation or breach of contract/suing cases.
2. Where is the court and what time should I attend?
Increasingly small local magistrates courts have been closed and their work transferred to large city centre courts. Your charge sheet or Postal Requisition should give you the address of the court in which you’re expected to appear. The government website will provide the location, telephone number and opening hours of all Magistrates’ Courts.
It would be wise to think carefully about how you get to court, as parking in city centres can be very expensive you won’t know how long you’ll be there. It may be better to travel by public transport. We have acted for clients who have received sentences of imprisonment and left their car in a car park outside court.
3. What time should I attend the Magistrates’ Court and when will my case be finished?
This information will be on your charge sheet or Postal Requisition. Normally you will be required to be at court by 9.15 even though most court cases don’t start sitting until 10am. Some hearings are listed in the afternoon so you may be required to attend at 13:15 even though afternoon court doesn’t start until 2pm. It’s important that you attend court promptly as a warrant for your arrest could be issued if you fail to arrive on time or do not turn up at all. If you are running late then it’s important to telephone the court or your solicitor so that they can keep the court notified.
This depends on a huge number of things, for example how complicated your case is, whether you are pleading guilty or not guilty plea, and whether the court and prosecution have your file. All morning cases are listed to start at 10am and are not necessarily dealt with in alphabetical order or the order that they appear on the list. Cases for defendants who are appearing from custody are often given priority. It is therefore important to get to court early so as to not be at the back of the queue. If you have a solicitor they can prepare your case in advance and help you get your case dealt with quickly and efficiently.
4. Will I have to speak in court?
Your case will be heard in front of either two or three “lay” magistrates. They are ordinary members of the public and sit as magistrates on either a voluntary basis or a single district judge.
A district judge is a professionally qualified judge, usually a former solicitor or barrister who is employed by the judiciary.
District judges often try the more serious or complicated cases. If you are not legally represented then you will have to present your own case. If you do have a solicitor then you will only be asked to confirm your name, address, date of birth and plea. Your solicitor will talk and present your case to the magistrates or district judge.
5. Do I need legal advice in the Magistrates’ Court?
In my view, yes, absolutely. If you were building a house you wouldn’t go ahead without at least seeking advice from an architect or if you were injured and needed an operation you wouldn’t do it yourself.
So why would you appear in court without seeking advice from an expert?
Are you considering pleading guilty or not guilty? Do you actually know what the law is or what defences may be available? We often see clients who contact us late and have already made decisions to plead guilty when they have a defence and are in fact not guilty in law. Just like in a botched operation, the routes to reverse those decisions are often very much more complicated. So it is important to get it right the first time.