All offences in England and Wales fall under one of three categories: summary offences; either-way offences; and indictable only offences.
The purpose of this categorisation is determine where the case will be dealt with e.g. the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. This is dependent, amongst other considerations, upon the seriousness of the offence or offences.
A summary only offence can only be heard or tried in the Magistrates’ Court. This means that the case will be dealt with either by a lay bench of three magistrates assisted by a legal clerk, or by a District Judge sitting alone. As such, the maximum sentence that can usually be passed for a single summary only offence is six months’ imprisonment.
Examples of summary only offences include: common assault, being drunk and disorderly, minor criminal damage (i.e. under £5,000), minor motoring offences.
An either-way offence (or an “offence triable either way”) can be tried either in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court.
Every criminal case, regardless of type or severity, starts out in the Magistrates’ Court with a first appearance. Then, however, an either-way offence can be dealt with in one of three ways:
The case can be fully resolved, e.g. by conviction and sentence or by acquittal, in the Magistrates;
The case can be tried in the Magistrates and then committed to the Crown Court for sentence in the event of a conviction;
The case can immediately be sent to the Crown Court where it will be fully resolved either by conviction and sentence or by acquittal.
In the first appearance, the Magistrates’ Court will hear the facts of the case and will decide where to allocate it – known as ‘allocation’ or ‘mode of trial’. If the case is too complex, or involves a very serious offence, or the likely sentence in the event of a conviction is over six months, the Court will allocate the case to the Crown Court.
If the case is fairly straightforward and has a likely sentence of six months or less, the Magistrates’ Court may decide to keep the case – also known as ‘accepting jurisdiction’ and hear the case itself.
However, if the Magistrates’ accept jurisdiction, a defendant will always have the right to elect that his case is tried by a jury in the Crown Court.
Examples of either-way offences are: assault occasioning actual bodily harm (often referred to as ‘ABH’), theft, drug offences and burglary.
Indictable Only Offences
An indictable only offence can only be heard in the Crown Court, where the charges are laid out on an indictment (the document listing the alleged offences).
These are the most serious offences, which usually carry a minimum sentence of a term of imprisonment. As these offences are tried in the Crown Court, the case will always be decided by a jury.
Examples of indictable only offences include: murder; manslaughter; wounding or causing grievous bodily harm with intent; rape and robbery.
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.