Types of Court - Magistrates
There are a number of courts that deal with criminal cases depending on the age of the defendant, the seriousness of the offence and what stage of the legal process the case is at.
Most cases will be heard at a Magistrates Court first. It’s called a summary hearing when the defendant first appears at court. This is when individual charges are read out.
Magistrates are either trained members of the community or professional judges who listen to an outline of the case and consider requests from solicitors or the probation service for extra time to gather information.
This means that a case might be adjourned – that’s moved to a later date - or it could be considered so serious that it’s referred to the Crown Court for trial.
At the first hearing, which you’ll normally not be asked to attend, the Court will decide how the case is to proceed. It’s sometimes necessary for the case to be adjourned to allow further enquiries to be made or for the defence to prepare its case.
Some cases may stay in the Magistrates Court. Others may be so serious that they need to be heard before the Crown Court or the defendant may elect trial by jury.
In any event, your Witness Care Officer will keep you advised of progress. You’ll only be required to attend court if the defendant pleads ‘not guilty’ and the court needs to hear your evidence before making a judgement.
Witnesses are essential to the criminal process and Derbyshire has a witness care unit based at Police Headquarters.
After your case has gone to court for the first time, a Witness Care Officer will make contact with you, usually by phone, to discuss what happens next and check your availability to attend court. This is your chance to raise any needs or concerns you may have.
During the court case, Witness Care will be your main contact for queries unless you’ve been appointed a Family Liaison Officer. They will also inform you whether the court has agreed to any ‘special measures’ to help you at court.
Types of Court - Crown
Your case may be heard at a Magistrates Court or a Crown Court. All Crown Court trials are heard before a jury. This is made up of 12 members of the public who listen to the case and consider the evidence to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not.
They’ll be directed by a judge – a highly qualified legal person – who will also decide on the type and length of sentence if the person is found guilty.
You’ll also see other types of lawyers – advocates will outline the case for the prosecution and question witnesses. The person charged with the offence will be represented and advised by an advocate and solicitor who dealt with the case in its early stages.
The traditions of the court are evident in how people dress. Most of the people involved in the legal process wear gowns and some will also wear wigs. Gowns are worn by the clerk to the court, who manages the court process, the judge and the advocates. Advocates are either barristers, or solicitors who have attained higher rights to address the Crown Court.
Ushers, whose job it is to call witnesses and take them to the witness box, may also wear gowns.
The colour of a judge’s gown depends on his or her seniority. A High Court Judge wears red, a Circuit Judge, dark blue and a Recorder, who is a part-time judge, black.
At some point you may be asked to give evidence. You may have to wait for some time if a case is complex and lots of witnesses are involved but the usher will advise you when it’s your turn. It is possible that you will be released from the court building if there is any delay but you must take advice from the court usher first. A member of the Witness Service will also be there to help you.
The courts provide waiting areas for members of the public. In Derbyshire, there are separate sections for the prosecution and defence witnesses.
You’ll be shown to the witness box – this is where you go to give evidence and you can choose whether to swear an oath on the Bible or other sacred book, or make a solemn affirmation.
The prosecution advocate will then ask you questions to outline what happened and after that the defence advocate will ask you questions on what you have told the court – this is called ‘cross examination’. You may be asked some
more questions by the prosecution to clear up any points and once this is done, you’ll be allowed to leave the witness box and you’ll be released from the court although you can stay to hear the rest of the case should you wish to do so.
Reporting the Courts
There may be journalists in court to report the case. Most courts have a press box and there may be an office in the court building where they can write news coverage. The media serves a role in the legal process by allowing the community to see justice being done and sentences given, which could act as a deterrent to others.
If the defendant is young, the case or initial hearings may be heard in a youth court which runs along similar lines to a Magistrates Court. Very serious offences involving young defendants can be heard in the Crown Court.
Courts can offer specialist help for vulnerable victims and witnesses. These ‘special measures’ include screens for
the witness box, the removal of wigs and gowns, members of the public being asked to leave the court, or evidence being given through a TV link which means the witness doesn’t go into court.
These measures are allowed at the discretion of a judge based on the circumstances of the case, such as evidence given by a young person. If a police officer thinks you might need special measures he or she will discuss this
with you and the Crown Prosecution Service. CPS will assess the reasons given by the police and if these are considered suitable, apply to the court for them to be put in place.
Once the court case has finished, this section outlines what the outcomes of the case will mean for you: what the sentencing might be, how to claim compensation and what an appeal could mean.