Magistrates’ Court

All criminal cases start in the Magistrates Court, and most will be entirely dealt with by the magistrates or a District Judge in this venue.

This page explains the key details of the Magistrates’ Court, such as which cases are heard there, how the procedures work, and what the Magistrates’ powers are.

What Cases Are Heard By Magistrates?

There are three categories of criminal offences:

  • Summary Only Offences,
  • Either Way Offences, and
  • Indictable Only Offences

Summary only offences can only be dealt with at the Magistrates’ Court (with some specific exceptions), and include low level offences such as common assault, s.4 Public Order Act offences, harassment, and vehicle interference. Almost all motoring offences, such as careless driving, drink driving, and speeding are also summary only offences.

Either way offences can be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, and include offences such as ABH, wounding, theft, burglary, and dangerous driving.

Indictable only offences include s.18 wounding with intent, robbery, and blackmail. These offences can only be heard in the Crown Court.

As well as hearing standard criminal cases, magistrates can also hear applications by the police for warrants, and licencing appeals for taxi drivers.

What are the Magistrates’ Court Procedures?

The Magistrates’ Court is usually less formal than the Crown Court. Instead of a Judge and jury, there will be bench of magistrates or a single District Judge hearing cases. Magistrates are not legally qualified, and they bring their everyday experience to deciding cases with the guidance of a qualified Legal Advisor to direct them on the relevant law.

If you are attending any court as a witness or a defendant, you should still be respectful and dress appropriately. Lawyers appearing in the Magistrates’ Court do not wear the traditional robes or wigs that are worn in the Crown Court.

Usually cases are listed in either the morning (9.45am) or the afternoon (1.45pm) lists, and cases are heard as and when they are ready and the court can fit them in. In busy court centres this can mean that defendants have a long wait before their case is heard. However, as cases can be transferred to different courtrooms, it is important to attend on time and to wait for the case to be heard.

What Powers Do Magistrates Have?

In general, the maximum sentence that the Magistrates’ Court can impose is 6 months imprisonment. This is why so many summary only offences have a statutory maximum sentence of 6 months. This maximum usually applies no matter how many charges are being dealt with- for summary only offences, the Court is limited to that maximum sentence.

However, if the magistrates are dealing with a case that involves 2 or more either way offences they have the power to impose up to 12 months imprisonment. There are certain conditions to be considered, which is why you should always be represented in any criminal case where custody is a possibility.

The Magistrates’ Court also has the power to impose Community Orders and Suspended Sentence Orders. Every case will have unique circumstances, but with the help of professional advice you should get the best outcome possible.

What If I Don’t Agree With The Outcome Of My Case?

If you are convicted at a trial in the Magistrates’ Court, or the sentence you received seems excessive, you have an automatic right of appeal. There are time limits that apply, so if you are considering an appeal it is important that you read our guide to appealing against a conviction or a sentence before you contact us to discuss your case.

For more information about how the Magistrates’ Court allocates either way cases to the Crown Court, please see our guidance on First Appearances, Trials, and Sentencing Hearings.