Being involved in the criminal justice system can be a daunting experience. With that in mind, let’s examine some of the more frequently asked questions that criminal defence lawyers are asked in an effort to gain a better understanding of the process.
How soon will my case be concluded?
This is a particularly difficult question to answer as there is no set length of time that a case can take. Every case is different and presents a different set of challenges, therefore, they tend to vary (sometimes quite significantly) in length.
Will I get a criminal record/conviction?
This question really requires two different answers. A criminal conviction is imposed upon someone who has been found guilty or pleaded guilty at either a magistrate’s court or a crown court. A police caution is not a criminal conviction.
A criminal record is a list of convictions and cautions a person has received.
Will my case be reported in the local papers?
It is a central pillar of the UK criminal justice system that ‘justice should be done and be seen to be done’. One of the ways that the State achieves this is by holding court hearings in public. The press is able to attend the court hearing as are members of the public. It is also within their power to report on the hearing as the cases are held in ‘open court’. This means that is entirely possible that a case may be reported in the press including identifying the person who is the subject of the proceedings.
There are exceptional cases when reporting restrictions will be in place. An example of this would be cases involving national security and children.
Will I get Legal Aid?
Legal Aid can be applied for on all types of criminal cases. There are tests in place to examine whether an order should be granted.
The first test is ‘the interests of justice’ test. This means that the Legal Aid Agency (the arm of the government which deals with such applications) will examine whether the case is serious enough or complex enough that a person requires the assistance of a solicitor. There are a number of ways in which the test is applied and varies from case to case.
The second test is a financial one. The Legal Aid Agency will examine a person’s earnings. If their earnings are above a certain amount then legal aid will not be granted in the magistrate’s court. If the case reaches the crown court then the person could be ordered to contribute to the cost of their representation.
What sentence will I receive if I am convicted?
This will obviously vary depending on what offence a person is charged with. In an effort to achieve some consistency in the way courts sentence people guidelines are in place for almost all criminal offences. A lawyer will be able to talk you through the particular set of guidelines for each offence.
What is the difference between the magistrates’ court and the crown court?
Every criminal case begins its life in the magistrate’s court. This court’s sentencing powers are limited to between six and twelve months imprisonment (depending on the case type). They cannot impose a higher sentence. Cases in the magistrate’s court are heard by a bench of magistrates and a trained legal advisor. Trials are not heard by a jury.
The Crown Court’s sentencing powers are only limited by statute. This means that (depending on the circumstances) they can impose the maximum sentence that the law allows. Cases in this court are heard by a judge. Trials are heard by juries and are presented by barristers (the people in wigs and gowns!).
Where will my case be heard?
All criminal cases are split into three different types.
The first is ‘summary only’ offences. These are what the court considers to be minor offences but which can still carry imprisonment. These cases can only be heard in the magistrate’s court.
The second is ‘either way’ offences. These are offences such as theft or possession of drugs. These are offences which vary in how serious they are. The magistrate’s court will decide if they can hear the case or whether it is too serious in which case it will be committed to the Crown Court.
The third category if ‘indictable only. This section is reserved for the most serious type of offences such as murder or rape. These offences can only be heard in the Crown Court.