If you are unlucky enough to be charged with a criminal offence, then you will have to go to the Magistrates’ Court. As always prior preparation and knowledge will make your time there easier. In this article we tell you what to expect and suggest you need to do to prepare. Every case is different, and you should take legal advice about the specific allegations against you, but this is a good start.
What is the Magistrates’ Court?
All criminal cases in England and Wales begin in the Magistrates’ Court and if you’re charged with any criminal offence then your case will begin there. 95% of cases will end in the Magistrates’ Court as well, indeed some criminal offences can only be dealt with by the Magistrates’ Court such as common assault and low value thefts. More serious offences can only be dealt with in the Crown Court and the magistrates will send your case there. A third group of offences can be dealt with in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, and you can choose which court will hear your case.
When you get to court your case will be heard by either three magistrates or a single district judge. What’s the difference? Magistrates are ordinary members of the public who have volunteered as judges. They are assisted by a qualified legal advisor. A district judge is a qualified lawyer who is employed as a judge. Magistrates and district judges have the same powers to manage your case and if needs be pass sentence. In most cases magistrates and district judges have the power to send someone to prison for up to six months.
How does my case get to the Magistrates’ Court?
You may be unlucky enough that after being arrested you are held in custody overnight and brought before the Magistrates’ Court the next day. In that case if you have not already instructed a lawyer you will have the opportunity to consult with a Duty Solicitor. This service is free of charge and you can appoint a different lawyer going forward.
If you have not been held in custody overnight, then you may be released by the police on bail and told to go to court on a specific date. Alternatively, you may receive a requisition or a summons. This is a letter telling you what you are alleged to have done and when you have to go to court. If you have advanced warning, then it is vital you prepare for court.
- Choose a lawyer and make sure they can come with you.
- Inform your unit and choose an assisting officer.
What happens at First Appearance?
When you first go to Court or hopefully beforehand you and your lawyer will receive disclosure. This is usually a summary of the evidence the prosecution has against you. Your lawyer will use this and what you tell them to advise you about your plea.
You will be expected to enter a plea to the charge against you, either guilty or not guilty. It is vital you take legal advice before doing so. Even where you have admitted some wrongdoing it does not mean you are “guilty as charged” or it maybe you only did some of what you are accused of. It is vital to get your plea right. The courts give you credit for your plea, effectively a discount on your sentence if you admit the offence early. The later you admit the offence the less discount you receive. At first appearance you can receive a one third reduction in sentence. If you are guilty and have been advised that you should enter a guilty plea then the earlier the better. You should only plead guilty if you are guilty and have had legal advice. If you enter a not guilty plea and then change your mind your credit will be much less.
What happens if I plead guilty?
If you enter a guilty plea you may be sentenced straight away so make sure you bring a reference from your unit and details of your income and expenditure. If the court needs more information about you or does not have time to deal with the case your sentence may take place on a different day. This can involve the Probation Service preparing a report on you.
If your case is too serious for the Magistrates’ Court then you will be committed for sentence to the Crown Court. You will then be sentenced on a different day by a Crown Court Judge.
What happens if I plead not guilty?
If you are not guilty and enter a not guilty plea then the case will be case managed for a trial either in the Magistrates’ Court or if the matter is serious in the Crown Court. A date will be set for the next hearing and you will need to identify what parts of the prosecution evidence you want to challenge. Your lawyer will be able to advise you on this.
If the case does not finish will I be held in custody?
At the end of the hearing the issue of bail will be decided. You can be held in custody until the next hearing if the court thinks you will fail to turn up to court next time or you will interfere with the witness or you will commit further offences before the next hearing. To help your lawyer make a bail application you or your Assisting Officer will need to be able tell the court where you will be living and sleeping until the next hearing. If you are going on exercise or being deployed, you need to tell your lawyer where you will be.
Where do I get advice and representation?
Your unit will offer you the services of an Assisting Officer, it’s important to choose carefully. You need someone you trust and who knows you well. For a first appearance your company commander is a good choice. They may also be able to recommend a lawyer who has worked with your unit previously.
You are entitled to free representation at the Police Station and at your first appearance at the Magistrates’ Court. After that you will need no arrange your own lawyers. You may be eligible for Legal Aid to help with the costs of your representation or you may need to pay privately. If you are eligible for Legal Aid then you will be required to pay a contribution towards your defence. This may be several thousand pounds. You will get your contribution back if you are acquitted.
It is important that your lawyer understands how the criminal process will affect your service and how your service can impact on the court process. Try and find a lawyer who specialises in both criminal and military law. Some specialist barristers can be instructed directly from their chambers.
Major Administrative Action
As a solider, the court process is not the end of the process. Even if found not guilty you may be subject to Major Administrative Action. The Court needs to understand how Major Administrative Action works and the effect it will have on your career and family. This is where having a specialist military lawyer helps. If you cannot find a military law specialist in time, then make sure your Assisting Officer brings to court a hard copy of AGAI65 to give to your lawyer. A copy of Annex G of AGAI67 may also help.
Three Top Tips
The three most important things to remember if you have to go to the Magistrates’ Court are:
- ADVICE: Make sure you get legal advice. Preferably from a specialist in both criminal and military law.
- CREDIT: If you are guilty you will receive credit for your plea if you plead at the earliest opportunity. Ensure you have legal advice so you make the right choice at the right time.
- AGAI: Whatever happens at Court will affect your career so make sure your lawyer and your Assisting Officer are ready to deal with that as well.
This article is commentary and not legal advice. If you have a query relating to a case (or anything else) and require independent advice, you ought to speak to a specialist solicitor or public access barrister.