A Basic Guide to the Crown Court
What is the Crown Court?
The Crown Court is the next level up from the Magistrates Court within the criminal court system. It has greater powers of punishment than the magistrates court and therefore generally deals with the most serious cases.
Each Crown Court covers a large region which will contain a number of magistrates courts. Relevant cases are directed from magistrates courts to their regional Crown Court. Please see our article "A Brief Guide to the Magistrates Court" for further information on which cases are sent to the Crown Court.
One of the biggest differences between the Crown Court and a magistrates court is that Trials heard in the Crown Court are decided by a jury of 12 men and women selected at random from the area covered by that Crown Court. It is unlikely that members of a jury will have experience of criminal courts. Lay Magistrates and District Judges in the Magistrates Court hear many cases over time so it is sometimes said that they can become cynical. As a result it is sometimes argued that a jury may be more open minded and therefore more likely to find a defendant Not Guilty than Lay Magistrates or District Judges.
What will it be like when I go to the Crown Court?
Most Crown Courts will have several court rooms with different cases being heard in each one. Therefore upon arrival at the Crown Court anyone attending for a particular case will need to find out in the reception area which court room that case is being heard in and make their way to the court room.
Unless stated otherwise all of the court rooms in the Crown Court are open to the public and contain a special seating area for members of the public. The judge sits on raised bench overlooking the court and the lawyers representing in a case will be behind lower benches facing the Judge. Defendants are required to stand or sit in the dock at the back of the court. The dock is designed for defendants to be able to see and hear everything that happens in the court room.
Most lawyers in the Crown Court wear wigs and black gowns (as you may have seen on television). The majority of lawyers in the Crown Court are barristers who are self employed and are instructed by either the prosecution or the defence to argue their case. More often nowadays solicitors with an additional qualification called Higher Rights of Audience also appear in the Crown Court.
The Judge in the Crown Court also wears a wig and formal court robes. Crown Court judges are qualified lawyers who are paid by the Government to act in that post and they direct the jury as to what the law is. The Crown Court judge is also responsible for deciding what sentence a person should receive (if they either plead Guilty or are found Guilty after a trial) as well as making decisions on matters of law raised by lawyers involved in the case.
The First Hearing
A defendant will have time to speak to the lawyer representing them in court before their case is heard.
The first hearing at the Crown Court will not be for a Trial to take place but will usually require that the defendant enter pleas of Guilty or Not Guilty to any charges they face.
If the Defendant pleads Guilty to all charges then the Judge is given a account of the offences that have been committed and details of the defendants past history. The Defence lawyer will be able to address the judge and put forward any reasons why the offence was committed. They can also highlight any features about the defendant or their character which might help to persuade the judge to consider a more lenient sentence.
Frequently before deciding upon what sentence to impose the judge will adjourn a case for a period of time to allow the Probation Service to interview the defendant and prepare a detailed report for the court to consider.
Where a Not Guilty plea is entered to one or more charges and the Prosecution wish to continue with the case the judge is told what the real issues in the case are (for example that the defendant was acting in self defence) and a time estimate is agreed for how many days the Trial will take. The judge then adjourns the case for the Trial to happen at a future date.
Trial by Jury in the Crown Court
A Trial happens when the prosecution try to prove that a defendant is Guilty of an offence and Defendant argues that he or she is Not Guilty and that the Prosecution have not proven the case against them.
At the start of the Trial the 12 members of the jury are called into court and "sworn in". This means that they promise to do their their best to listen to the evidence during the Trial and make a fair decision as to whether they each find the defendant Guilty or Not Guilty.
During the Trial the judge is responsible for ensuring everything that happens is according to the law and is fair. The task of the jury is to listen to the evidence, to accept from the judge what the relevant law is and then to decide whether they find the Defendant Guilty or Not Guilty.
If the Defendant is found Guilty then it is the Judge who will decide what sentence is given to the Defendant.
During the Trial both the prosecution and defence lawyers will be able to make speeches to the jury in an attempt to argue their side of the case.
The prosecution have to present their case first for it is their job to put enough evidence forward to prove the case against the defendant. Most evidence is given by way of a witness coming into court and telling the court and jury what happened. Every prosecution witness can then be asked questions by the defence lawyer (this is known as cross examination) who will try to throw doubt or possibly discredit that witnesses evidence.
If the evidence is strong enough for the case to carry on after the prosecution have finished calling all of their evidence the defendant can choose to give evidence in court to put over their side of the story.
After that any defence witness may also come into court and tell the court what they know about the case.
As with the prosecution witnesses the defendant and defence witness can also be cross examined by the opposing lawyer which means the prosecution lawyer can also ask them questions.
At the end of all of the evidence in the Trial the Judge "sums up" all the evidence from both the prosecution and the defence and explains to the jury what the law is. The judge explains what the prosecution must be prove for the jury to find the defendant guilty.
The jury then leave the court room and sit together in a separate room where they between them must each reach a decision as to whether they find the defendant Guilty of Not Guilty.
Initially the jury are required to come to an unanimous verdict but after a period of time has passed if the jury cannot do so then they can come to a decision on a majority verdict where 10 or more of the jury agree. A 9 to 3 majority is not enough. On rare occasions there is a "hung jury" which means that the jury simply cannot agree on a majority verdict. There is often a Re-Trial when this happens which means the whole Trial is heard again at a later date but with a different jury.
Further help and advice
The members of our Crown Court Department have vast experience at preparing and defending cases in the Crown Court. We have acted on numerous large and complex cases and do everything we can to ensure that our clients receive the best possible outcome to their case. We understand that every case no matter how large or small is very important to those people who stand accused. We will do our best to help you through a difficult and stressful time.