Receiving paperwork in the post or attending the police station to be told you are to be charged with an offence and being told you need to attend the Magistrates' Court for your first appearance, can be very daunting prospect.
In this article, we will provide you with information about what to expect, what you should do, what you should bring with you and what will happen.
You can be informed that you are being charged with an offence in a variety of different ways, which include the following:
Receiving a postal requisition, informing you of the date, time and location for your first hearing along with the nature of your charges;
Attending the police station on your bail to return date to be charged by the custody sergeant who will give you your paperwork. This will also tell you the date, time and location for your first hearing, along with the list of charges;
Being arrested, interviewed and charged immediately by the police, and then, either being bailed to attend Court on a later, date, or being held in custody, where you will then be produced by the police to the Court at the next Court sitting.
If you are given advance notice of the need for you to attend Court for your first hearing, it is highly advisable that you seek legal advice. A solicitor can obtain ‘Initial Details of the Prosecution Case’ - otherwise known as a case summary or IDPC, from the prosecution. This enables the lawyer to consider the summary of evidence that is being suggested exists against you, obtain your instructions and give you advice as to which plea enter at the first hearing. All of this can be done in advance of the hearing itself.
If you attend Court without a solicitor that you have previously instructed, you can certainly contact a solicitor on the day or you can ask the Court to see the Duty Solicitor. If you see the solicitor at Court on the day of the hearing, you will have time to consider the IDPC with the solicitor at Court and be advised on plea before going into Court for the hearing itself.
Arrival at Court
Upon arrival at Court, you will need to go through security and generally empty your pockets and a place your bag and other personal effects onto a tray for a viewing through a scanner by security. You are also likely to be searched by security using a wand or pat down search. If you have any drinks in your possession you will need to demonstrate that they are fit for consumption and will often be asked to take a sip.
Once you have gone through security, there will be a noticeboard where the day’s cases will be printed alongside the courtroom that will be dealing with them. It is advisable to look for your name on the list and then to go to that courtroom and wait outside where you will be met by your solicitor.
If you have met the solicitor in advance, the first hearing, then you will know who to look out for and will already be aware of the evidence in the case and what likely plea is going to be that day. If you have not previously met solicitor, then the solicitor will do their best to secure a private room for a conference to take place so they can go through the paperwork with you, take your instructions and advise you on plea.
Once you’ve had your discussion with your solicitor, you will then need to wait your turn for your case to be called on. It is common for multiple cases to be listed in the same courtroom at the same time. Cases are called on in order of who is ready first or if someone is in custody, they generally take priority.
It is advisable to remain close to the courtroom and when you are called by the Usher/List Caller (person who will likely be in a black gown, carrying a clipboard), you will be told to follow them into Court and take a seat. You will be directed where to sit and that may be in the body of the courtroom or indeed in the dock. The dock is the area where defendants sit and they are often glass fronted with a door that will be closed behind you. The solicitor will have given you advice about your prospects of bail and so you should go into Court knowing whether you will be released on bail or are at risk of being remanded into custody.
The legal advisor will be the person that sits in front of the District Judge or Magistrates, and will ask you to stand, and to give the Court, your name, date of birth and your address. The legal advisor will then ask your solicitor whether the charges that you face can be put to you. This simply means whether you are ready to enter a plea, guilty or not guilty.
A District Judge is a legally qualified person and will sit alone to hear a case.
Magistrates are not legally qualified and so generally sit in a group of three with the Chairperson sitting in the centre, and occasionally two people. They will rely upon advise from the legal advisor who much like their name suggests, are legally qualified.
If you are ready to enter a plea, then the charge(s) will be read to you, and you will be expected to enter or indicate a plea.
The nature of your charge(s) will determine whether your case can only be dealt within the Magistrates' Court (summary only), can be dealt with either in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court (either way), or can only be dealt with in the Crown Court (indictable only).
Summary Only Matters
If you enter a guilty plea, the Court will need to sentence you. This can take place immediately or your case may need to be adjourned for a report to be prepared by Probation. You will be asked to complete a means form, which sets out your financial circumstances. If your case is adjourned for a report to be prepared, you will be asked to give your contact information to Probation who will give you an appointment date and time that you must attend. You will then return for sentence on that later date.
If Probation have sufficient capacity, they may be able to complete your report the same day in which case you can be sentenced later the same day.
If you plead not guilty, the Court will need to fix a date for trial and will make various directions to ensure that all matters of trial preparation are completed in good time. There is a lengthy form to be completed and the court will likely go through this form with both the prosecution and defence whilst you remain patiently waiting in the dock.
In both scenarios, the Court will need to deal with the question of bail, and that is whether you whether you are released or remanded into custody. If you are on bail, then the Court can attach conditions that you must comply with.
Either Way Matters
If you plead guilty to an either way matter, the court needs to carry out an exercise to determine whether the sentencing powers in the Magistrates' Court are sufficient, or whether instead your case needs to be committed to the Crown Court for sentence. The lawyers will have a discussion in Court making representations to the Court as to the appropriate venue for sentence. There may be some discussion about your personal circumstances, the facts of the case itself and the sentencing guidelines.
If you plead not guilty to an either way matter, the Court will consider whether they have sufficient powers to deal with your case in the Magistrates' Court. If they do, this is called them ‘accepting jurisdiction’. In such circumstances, you will then be given the choice as to whether your case remains in the Magistrates' Court, or you wish to elect a Crown Court trial. Your solicitor will have given you advice about this before the hearing, including discussing the pros and cons of having a trial in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court.
If you elect to keep your case in the Magistrates' Court, the trial date will be fixed much like a not guilty plea for a summary only matter.
If you elect to have your case sent to the Crown Court to be dealt with there, you will be given a date for a hearing in the Crown Court. The first hearing in the Crown Court is called a Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing (‘PTPH’) and generally takes place 28 days from the date of your first appearance in Magistrates' Court.
Indictable Only Matters
In cases that can only be dealt with in the Crown Court. There is a form to complete, and the form requires the legal representative to indicate what plea is likely to come from the defendant in due course. Regardless of that indication, the case must be sent to the Crown Court and a PTPH date to be provided, leaving only the question of bail to be determined.
Towards the end of the hearing, the Magistrates or District Judge will confirm the date, time and location of your next hearing, the purpose of it, and also give you specific warnings about the requirement for you to attend on next occasion otherwise you will be committing a separate offence and warrant can be issued to secure your attendance. You will also be told that if you do not attend for your trial, then it can go ahead in your absence.
At the close of the hearing, it is always advisable to speak with your solicitor again to make arrangements for the next contact you will have with them on whether there are any specific things that you need to do to prepare for your case.
There will also be the question of funding, and you may need to provide certain documentation for a legal aid application or to agree fees if you are funding your case on a private basis.
It is a scary prospect having to attend Court. The best advice is always to attend Court fully prepared having gone to the effort of identifying and instructing a solicitor who you have met in advance of the hearing, in an ideal situation, and if that is not possible, you arrive at Court in plenty of time to have your conference at the first hearing.
Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.