Criminal offences: trial and court jurisdiction

From a legal perspective, crimes are regarded as offences committed against society as a whole even when they affect one or more specific persons. Criminal offences can be divided into three groups according to their seriousness and the penalties associated with them, which also determine they way they are tried in the courts.

The vast majority of criminal cases are summary offences which are heard by and disposed of in the Magistrates Court. Only the most serious offences are subject to trial by jury in the Crown Court.

Criminal OffencesSummary offences

These are the less serious and most common offences, many of them are driving offences and traffic violations. Over 12 million people are found guilty of summary offences every year and they constitute over 90% of all criminal offences. The Magistrates Court Act 1957 introduced a procedure enabling persons to plead guilty by post due to the large number of convictions. Summary offences are all statutory offences and the maximum penalty per offence is six months in prison or a £5,000 fine. They are tried and disposed of in the Magistrates Court without a jury trial and defendants can be tried in their absence.

Summary offences include:

  • most motoring offences (excluding dangerous driving);
  • harassment;
  • criminal damage under £5,000
  • public order offences such as being drunk and disorderly
  • common assault
  • animal cruelty.

Hybrid offences

Also referred to as ‘either/or’, these lie in between the two. If the accused consents, the case may be tried as a summary offence in the Magistrates Court. An accused aged 17 or over may demand a jury trial in the Crown Court. If the case is tried in the Magistrates Court and the accused is found guilty, the magistrates may send the case to the Crown Court for sentencing if they think the offence is serious enough to deserve more serious punishment than what they are able to impose.

A common example of a hybrid offence is theft, which can be anything from a minor shoplifting incident to theft of hundreds of thousands. Hybrid offences include:

Handcuffs and gavel

  • theft
  • fraud and deception
  • burglary
  • handling stolen goods
  • serious assault (causing Actual Bodily Harm)
  • drugs offences (possession and supply)
  • criminal damage over £5,000
  • sexual offences
  • dangerous driving
  • racially motivated offences
  • violent disorder
  • death threats

Indictable offences

These are the most serious offences such as rape, murder, manslaughter, robbery and conspiracy. These must be tried in the Crown Court and the trial is by jury. Although indictable offences are only tried in the Crown Court, proceedings are started in the Magistrates Courts who deal with preliminary matters such as legal aid, bail, witness summonses and the transfer of the action to the Crown Court for trial, known as Committal Proceedings.

Before a trial by jury can take place, a preliminary examination of the evidence is held at a Magistrates Court to decide whether or not there is a reasonable case to be tried in the Crown Court.

Indictable offences include:

  • Prisonmurder
  • manslaughter
  • attempted murder;
  • robbery
  • aggravated burglary
  • rape
  • blackmail
  • arson with intent
  • conspiracy.

Types of offences tried in the county court

Indictable offences heard in the county court can be classified into three different classes according to their seriousness.

Crown Court Offences

Appeals

In addition to being a court of first instance for indictable and hybrid (either way) offences, the Crown Court also hears appeals from the Magistrates’ Court against conviction and/or sentence.

Appeals are normally heard by a Circuit Judge sitting with two to four magistrates.