Criminal Justice System of Great Britain
Corinna V. Lyle - 090238190 Criminal Justice - Assignment 1
The Role of the Trial
The role of the judicial system is to protect the innocent, to pass judgement and to serve an appropriate form of punishment on convicted felons. This may include receiving a custodial sentence, serving a specified amount of community service or incurring a disqualification or penalty fine. All criminal cases in the UK initially commence in the same system. However the severity and details of the offence will affect the following: which court the accused may be trialled and sentenced in, the criminal proceedings and the level of punishment received. This essay will examine the differing categories of offence and describe the role of the trial to provide a basic overview of the Crown and Magistrates court systems of Great Britain.
The criminal court system has two rankings. The lower is the Magistrates’ Court and the higher ranking is the Crown Court. The Youth Court established in 1992 is a separate less formal division of the Magistrates’ Court. It was set up for the trial and punishment of minors aged between ten and seventeen years old. Young offenders too young to be trialled as adults (unless they are being tried alongside an adult) and old enough to know right from wrong are forced to face the consequences of their actions. The youth justice system can impose sentences up to 24 months detention in a young offenders unit or a fixed amount of community service (Youth Justice Board Website, 2010)
Three types of criminal offence are trialled between these two systems. They are Summary, Either-way or Indictable offences. The level of severity of an offence will dictate which category it belongs to. Many of the cases that commence at the Magistrates Court will also come to term there; however a proportion of cases that are deemed most serious in nature and require a custodial sentence will proceed to the Crown Court system.
The Magistrates’ Court deals with both criminal and civil cases. The court comprises a panel of either three ‘Lay Magistrates’ with the assistance of a ‘Justice Clerk’ or one ‘District Judge’. Lay magistrates are volunteers’ representative of their local community. They work part-time and may also have an un-associated profession. They are not required to hold a legal qualification and receive substantial training before they undertake their duties. Their role along with the justice clerk (who is available in an advisory capacity) is to supervise most (95%) cases conducted at the Magistrates’ Court. The justice clerk is legally qualified and will have a minimum of five years prior legal experience. (Gibson et al, 2002) Their role is to oversee proceedings to ensure they are conducted effectively and where necessary advise the lay magistrates on the legalities regarding a particular case. District judges serve alone in court and sit in place of lay magistrates. They are legally qualified, work fulltime and are paid a salary. They must hold no less than seven years relevant experience and are charged with handling the minority of the cases heard at the Magistrates’ Court. These usually include the least serious offences or those which are long, complex or regarded as sensitive in nature. The maximum penalty that the magistracy can pass is a term of 6 months imprisonment for individual offences or a fine up to £5000. (Criminal Justice System Website, 2010)
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Summary offences are tried at the Magistrates’ Court. They are least severe in nature and include minor misdemeanours such as anti social behaviour, assault, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass to name a few. Either-way cases begin at the Magistrates’ Court and are subjected to a pre ‘Mode of trial’ hearing to determine the seriousness of the offence and to allow the defendant, to exercise his right to request to be trialled by Judge and Jury. The result will decide which of the two courts will try the case. Crimes of this category may include drug offences, dangerous driving and burglary.
The Crown Court system plays two roles in the judicial system. The first is to prosecute the most serious felonies by imposing longer sentences, in some cases life imprisonment. This level of punishment is reserved for Indictable offences associated with heinous criminal acts such as murder, rape kidnap, grievous bodily harm etc. The Crown Court system is also responsible for the sentencing of all criminal acts including trials that concluded at the Magistrates’ Court and a proportion of Either-way cases which originated at the Magistrates Court but were passed to the Crown Court due to their severity or at the defendant’s request.
A trial held by the Crown Court relies on a panel of Jurors to deliver a verdict on an accused persons innocence or guilt. The principle of ‘adversarial justice’ is central to the judicial system. This means that the jury must be convinced ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the defendant is guilty of committing the crime they have been accused of.
The court proceedings will be overseen by a Judge who will support the Jury and make sure that the trial is conducted appropriately. Depending on the type of trial for example, civil versus criminal or the severity and complexities of a particular case there are three types of judge that may be present in court. The role of the judge is to oversee entire proceedings and ensure a fair trial. They must be impartial and when necessary decide the admissibility of evidence and settle disputes between counsels. All judges must be a legal professional with a minimum of ten years experience. The High Court Judge is the most senior position and can deal with even the most severe offences such as murder. Circuit Judges and Recorders and Assistant Recorders share the same jurisdiction and can try all criminal offences except murder. The only notable difference between the two is that while recorders are employed part-time circuit judges are employed fulltime.
Potential jurors are members of the public that are randomly selected through their inclusion on the Electoral Register. If summoned they are legally obligated to perform their civic duty. To serve as a jury member they must first meet a range of specific requirements: they must be within the ages of eighteen and seventy years old and must have ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ in the UK. They also must have lived in the country for duration of at least five years from the age of thirteen. Certain people are not eligible for jury service for a variety of reasons such as: being a member of the armed forces or employed within the legal sector. If they have been convicted of an offence within the last decade, or are mentally unstable they are also disqualified. A person whom is self-employed can apply to be excused from serving due to potential loss of income. The original number of fifteen to eighteen potential members is whittled down to a final panel of twelve jurors. This provides a random and balanced selection of people from various demographics, some who may have no prior knowledge of the law. Once the jury are sworn in they are obligated to attend all hearings regarding the case. It is imperative that the jurors do not disclose any information regarding the trial to anyone not involved in the proceedings. They must remain honest and unbiased throughout.
Throughout legal proceedings the jury may be provided with vast amounts of relevant information and material. Their role is to listen to the lawyers from the prosecution and the defence propose all the facts and present evidence in various forms. Physical evidence, documentary evidence, statements, relevant dates and times, and any other factual information may be produced. Witness testimonies plus the offender/s and victims account of events may also be heard.
During the trial the defendant or victim may be questioned and possibly cross examined by the opposing counsel regarding the offence. Witnesses may be called on in court to provide impartial and factual information regarding the crime or the defendant. Their testimony may provide a valuable insight and can be cross examined if requested. There are three key types of witness. These are ‘Ordinary’, ‘Professional’ and ‘Expert’. The Ordinary Witness may play two roles. The first, as a character witness they may provide information about the defendant’s reputation or disposition. The second is someone that may be required to testify and to give an honest account about certain relevant information that was personally seen or heard regarding the offence or the accused. The second type of witness is the Professional Witness. They must have a reputable profession and may include work in the legal or medical sector. Their role, when required is to provide factual information from a professional perspective regarding the trial. If asked they may also voice their professional opinion on certain matters within their competency. Members of the Police Force such as an Officer or a Crime Scene Investigator would both be classed as this type of witness. The final type is Expert Witness. Their role is similar to the professional witness. They too must hold a reputable position in employment. They must be a specialist in their field of interest, for example a Forensic Pathologist. They are required to provide factual information beyond the knowledge of laypersons and if requested may provide specialist opinion within their area of expertise.
After all the evidence has been heard, both counsels will make a closing speech. The judge will present a summary of the facts and evidence to the jury and remind them of the legalities concerning the case. Following this the jurors will retire for a period to consider the evidence presented. Depending on the details of the case they will make an impartial decision regarding the accused person/s guilt or innocence. For a jury to successfully return a verdict there must be a majority agreement between ten of the twelve people present. If this is not possible then a close majority decision can be accepted at the judge’s discretion. Once the jury has reached a verdict they will be asked to state it aloud. The judge has no role when deciding the verdict but he must serve justice either by passing a sentence or acquitting the defendant as appropriate.
In essence, this essay has provided an overview of the criminal justice process. It has offered an insight into the type of offences that may be trialled in both the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court and has explored the various roles that ordinary members of the public and legal professionals play within the judicial system of Great Britain.
Ashworth, A. (2005). Sentencing and Criminal Justice. 4th ed UK: Cambridge university Press.
Ashworth, A. (2004). A Prectical guide to evidence. 3rd ed. UK: Clarendon Press.
Gibson, B. & Cavadino, P. (2002). Introduction to the Criminal Justice Process. 2nd ed. UK: Waterside Press.
Harris, A. & Lee, H C. (2006). Physical Evidence in Forensic Science. USA: Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company Inc.
Jackson, A R J. & Jackson, J. (2007). Forensic Science. 2nd ed. UK: Pearson Education, Inc.
Criminal Justice System Website. Available at: [Accessed 2010]
Youth Justice Board Website. Available at: [Accessed 2010]
Her Majesty’s Courts Service Website. Available at: [Accessed 2010]
The UK Statute Law Database Website. Available at: [Accessed 2010]
Direct Gov Website. Available at: [Accessed 2010]
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