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What happens at the Magistrates' Court?

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In England and Wales, all criminal law cases will begin in the Magistrates’ Court. This means that if you have been charged with an offence, your first court appearance will always be in the Magistrates’ Court no matter what your case relates to.

If you are awaiting a Magistrates’ Court hearing, you will likely have a number of questions. Whether you are broadly familiar with the Magistrates’ Court procedure or not, it is essential that you have a good understanding of what to expect before you attend court for your hearing.

Here, we break down everything you need to know about Magistrates’ Courts cases, including what the process will typically involve and what will happen if a verdict has been reached.

What is the Magistrates Court?

The Magistrates’ Court is the starting point for virtually all criminal cases in England and Wales. Cases heard at a Magistrates’ Court hearing will be presided over by two or three Magistrates or a district judge. There is no jury in a Magistrates’ Court.

The Magistrates’ Court will handle ‘summary only’ offences. These are less serious cases, which can only be dealt with by the Magistrates’ Court. Common summary only offences include motoring offences and minor criminal damage.

A Magistrates’ Court can also deal with ‘either way’ offences. These are more serious offences which can be heard by either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. During the Magistrates’ Court process, a decision will be made about whether the case will be dealt with in the Crown Court or the Magistrates Court. Even if the court decides the case should be dealt with by the Magistrates Court a defendant pleading not guilty has the right to demand a Crown Court trial.  Either way offences include theft, causing ABH and some public order offences.

Magistrates’ Courts will not handle ‘indictable only’ offences. These are the most serious cases (e.g. murder). While indictable-only cases will start in the Magistrates’ Court, they will automatically be transferred to the Crown Court.

What does a Magistrate do?

Magistrates (also sometimes referred to as Justices of the Peace) are volunteer members of the community who are trained to make decisions in both criminal and family law cases. They do not require any specific legal qualifications or previous training.

While Magistrates do preside over a large number of cases that are held in the Magistrates’ Court, more complex or serious issues will typically be handled by a district judge. A District Judge is a lawyer who works in the Magistrates Court and has the same powers as the Magistrates.

What is a Magistrates’ Court summons?

Magistrates’ Court summons will be sent by the court, normally through the post. The summons will provide all of the initial information needed about an upcoming case, including the day and time of the hearing, a summary of the alleged offences and a summary of the facts.

In some cases, police and other witness statements may be included in the summons.

It is essential not to ignore a Magistrates’ Court summons. It is important to consult a specialist criminal defence solicitor for support, advice and representation in the wake of a summons.

What happens at the first hearing in Magistrates' Court?

During the first Magistrates’ Court hearing, the person accused will be expected to tell the court whether they are guilty or not. Our criminal law solicitors will be able to provide representation at the first hearing, and can assess the case and advise on the best course of action.

What happens if you plead guilty at Magistrates' Court?

If you plead guilty, the magistrates or district judge will then proceed to consider the possible sentences. Whether this decision is made immediately, or the case is adjourned will depend on the circumstances.

You will receive credit for an early guilty plea leading to a reduction in the penalty you would otherwise receive Click Here.

If the case is adjourned for a pre-sentence report, you would need to see the probation service. They would then prepare a report which will be used by the Magistrates’ Court for sentencing.

If the offence is an either way offence, and the magistrates or district judge decide that the offence is too serious for them to deal with, the case will be sent to the Crown Court for sentence.

What happens if you plead not guilty at Magistrates' Court?

If you plead not guilty at the Magistrates’ Court then, for summary-only cases, a trial will take place in the Magistrates’ Court. For either way cases, a decision will be made as to whether the case should continue to be held in the Magistrates’, or whether it should be referred to the Crown Court.

If the case is to be tried in the Magistrates’ Court, a date will be set for a trial to take place.

What does the Magistrates’ Court trial process involve?

The prosecution will begin by providing a summary of the case against you. Following this,  they will call their evidence which may be witnesses present in court or statements read to the court if agreed by you and your solicitor. Your solicitor can question the witnesses on your behalf. The court will also hear legal arguments from your lawyers on issues related to the law or case. 

Once this step is completed, your police interview will be read to the court and the prosecutor will proceed to close the case.

Depending on whether or not the prosecution’s evidence is strong enough for the case to continue, your defence solicitor will then put forward your case and present witnesses. The most important witness is likely to be you.

 The prosecutor may make a speech explaining why the court should find you guilty and the defence solicitor will then make a speech explaining why you should be found not guilty.

 The Magistrates or District Judge will then consider their verdict.

How long does a Magistrates' Court hearing last?

On average, Magistrates’ Court trials last between five and six hours. It could take more or less time to conclude depending on the number of witnesses and amount of evidence.

Can the public attend Magistrates' Court hearings?

In the vast majority of cases, Magistrates’ Court trials can be observed by members of the public. They can do so from the public gallery, which tends to be at the back of each court room.

Does Magistrates’ Court have a jury?

There is no jury in a Magistrates’ Court. The Magistrates or District Judge have the final say over whether a defendant is guilty or not and what sentence to impose.

Can a Magistrate send you/me to prison?

Magistrates do have the power to send you to prison. However, their sentencing powers are somewhat restricted.

Magistrates can hand out unlimited fines, bans, community orders and up to 6 months custody, depending on the type of offence. In some cases if there is more than one offence to be sentenced they can send people to prison for up to 12 months.

What should you do if you are due to appear at a Magistrates’ Court hearing?

If you are due to attend a Magistrates’ Court hearing, it is critical that you have the highest standard of legal support and representation on your side. The involvement of an experienced criminal defence solicitor can be very helpful. It can stop you gaining a criminal conviction or can keep you out of prison.

It is also important that you have a good understanding of what the Magistrates’ Court procedure will involve and what you can expect before the first hearing.

At JD Spicer Zeb, our criminal defence solicitors attend court on a daily basis, helping clients in all types of situations throughout the process. We will work diligently to provide you with all the support you need, with the aim of securing the best possible result.

Contact our Magistrates’ Court solicitors today

For urgent specialist advice, immediate representation or to speak to us confidentially about how we can help provide you with Magistrates’ Court assistance, please do not hesitate to contact our dedicated team of specialist Magistrates Court solicitors in London, Birmingham or Manchester on telephone:

Or email: solicitors@jdspicer.co.uk

Alternatively, you can fill out our quick online enquiry form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

24/7 legal representation for criminal offences

For immediate representation and advice about Magistrates’ Court trials and hearings, you can contact our Emergency Number: 07836 577 556, and we will provide you with the urgent assistance you need.

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Do we offer free consultations? 

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How can we help?

Common questions

We always work with the most experienced and best leading UK barristers, KCs (Kings Counsel). We cover all criminal cases 24/7 at the police station and court. Offices in London, Birmingham, and Manchester cover cases across England and Wales. We can offer Legal Aid and affordable Private fee agreements. We can see you the same day, including virtually. Our Senior Partners supervise all of our cases.

How quickly do you respond?

We respond quickly even during out of hours. We do not get our work by paying for online adverts but based on the fact that few criminal law firms can match our 45 years of experience. Most of our cases are still from word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients. We are called daily by dissatisfied clients from firms with less experience than us. We respond very quickly to new enquiries. We know what clients seek and so we update clients rapidly.

Can you get cases dropped?

Yes, read about the recent cases we've helped our clients with here.

We always keep you updated and give straightforward advice. We will get cases dropped early where the case is weak or should not be prosecuted. We will be upfront with you about where you can benefit from a good result with an early guilty plea, such as a discount on your sentence. As we work on cases across all levels with clients from all walks of life, we are excellent at giving clear, spot-on advice. As an established firm, we can allocate a whole team to your case often at short notice to secure evidence to minimise the damage to you. 

Have you won any awards?


"JD Spicer Zeb demonstrated a clear commitment to client service through their work with vulnerable and diverse individuals in what can be severely traumatic circumstances".

Do you offer free consultations?

Where it is possible, we aim to provide an initial consultation to you. If we can speak to you, we can if required inform you about  –

  • Whether we can take the case on and our relevant experience.
  • Public and private funding benefits.
  • Assistance in applying for legal aid where we are likely to accept instructions.
  • An outline of options in police interview only. We will not advise you on which option to adopt.
  • Providing our free written guide explaining the police station process.
  • The gravity of routine and day-to-day offences you face.
  • Consequences of not attending the court or police station.
  • Consequences of interfering with any witnesses.
  • Retaining any evidence in support of your case.
  • If possible an outline of the elements of the offence that the police or CPS must prove.
  • This consultation will normally be by telephone or email and will only be for as long as we deem necessary to establish if we can act for you. If we cannot usefully give you any advice in this manner then we will not continue with the consultation. We will not discuss the case in depth for you to be able to decide on your plea or any significant aspect of the case, as this cannot be undertaken informally.
  • Referring you, if possible, to other firms for matters out of our specialism or if we cannot help.

Consultations do not apply to the following cases –

  • If we do not intend to take the case on.
  • Road Traffic cases, drink driving, drug driving, driving bans, speeding, no insurance, mobile phone use, points etc.
  • In all cases where we do not have the capacity to take your case or the availability of suitably qualified staff to provide an initial free consultation. This is applicable in all cases but especially where a more senior lawyer is required because of your personal needs or the complexity of the case.
  • Harassment/stalking/ coercive behaviour/malicious communications or road traffic cases and most sensitive cases. These cases are often too complicated to assess in short consultations.
  • The locations concerned may be too distant to represent you adequately or it may not be cost-effective for you or us.
  • The case is too complicated to assess or raises various charges or facts, complexity, or history to be considered informally or in a short consultation.
  • In most Legal aid transfers where legal aid is granted to another firm except in very grave cases, we may assess the case and merits for a transfer.
  • If your relationship has broken down with your existing solicitor or several solicitors.
  • If you have been released under investigation and have already had a police station attendance. 
  • If you hold legal aid with another firm and seek a second opinion.
  • If you are calling on behalf of the client as a friend or family member unless you have full authority and full facts.
  • To businesses.
  • Advising whether you were given good advice by your other solicitor.
  • Whether to decide to plead guilty or not guilty.
  • Whether you have an arguable defence in law or factually complicated defences.
  • Any advice you have had after your first court appearance.
  • Any advice on appeal on conviction or sentence.
  • If we feel we are unable to communicate with you.
  • If we are likely to be conflicted or breach our professional rules.