Receiving a Summons
Generally, the first notification of a hearing is the summons which normally arrives in the post. The correspondence will set out the details of where and when the case is to be heard.
The summons sets out the alleged offence and the date and location it is said to have occurred. It is also likely that the prosecution includes its evidence, such as witness statements, photographs, weighbridge results or tachographs – depending on the offence. The summons will also outline the prosecution costs which are being asked for.
Most traffic offences will be dealt with in the Magistrates Court but some more serious offences, such as death by dangerous driving, will end up in the Crown Court.
Most Court hearings will be listed at either 10am or 2pm. Often a number of matters are listed at the same time and so defendants will have to wait around until their case is heard.
Who decides your case?
If the case is heard in the Magistrates’ Court then the matter will be heard by either three magistrates or a District Judge.
The three magistrates are usually lay people and aren’t legally trained, whilst District Judges will be qualified lawyers. Both magistrates and District Judges are assisted by a legal advisor, whose job it is to ensure that procedures are adhered to and that the magistrates are properly directed as to the law.
At the first hearing, a defendant is usually expected to enter either a Guilty or Not Guilty plea. In unusual circumstances, no plea may be entered and the hearing adjourned.
If a Guilty plea is entered then it is likely that sentencing will take place that day.
If a Not Guilty plea is entered, then the matter will be adjourned for either a Case Management Hearing (prior to Trial) or a Trial.
A defendant can change their plea from Not Guilty to Guilty at any time they wish, but the earlier they enter a Guilty plea the more discount they will receive on their sentence.
The Trial / Sentencing Hearing
In both situations, the prosecution will set out its case first. If it is a trial then this will be actioned through witnesses giving evidence. If it is a sentencing hearing then the prosecutor will just read a summary of the facts of the case.
Next, the defence will put its case forward. If this is a trial, then it will, again, introduce evidence through witnesses. If it is a sentencing hearing then the defence will just be providing mitigation which may, or may not, require the use of witnesses.
The magistrates or district Judge may well retire at the end of the case to make their decision, In complex cases, you may not learn the outcome until a few weeks later but this is rare.
Once the magistrates or district judge have made their decision they will return to the court room to pronounce their decision.
There are sentencing guidelines in the magistrates’ courts which provide rules on the type of sentence each offence should receive. Depending on the positive and negative features of the particular offence, the sentence will move up or down the range of available sentences.
An experienced lawyer should know what evidence is likely to persuade a court that an offence should be dealt with leniently and what evidence is not important. The unrepresented individual may have some great mitigation to explain why they committed the offence but not appreciate its relevance and therefore leaving themselves with a more severe punishment than they deserve because it is never communicated to the Court.