Going to court as a defendant
If you have been charged with a crime and have to appear in court, it is important you understand what will happen during the trial and what will happen if you do not turn up on the day your case is heard.
Your first hearing
Before going to court for your first hearing you have to decide whether you will plead 'guilty' or 'not guilty'.
At your first appearance in court, you will normally be asked to enter your plea. If you plead guilty, then the court will pass sentence. If you plead 'not guilty' a date for the trial will be set.
You can ask for help from a duty solicitor, free of charge. This is often the easiest way to get advice on the day. They may also take your case on if it's relatively straightforward.
If your case is more serious and you cannot afford a lawyer, you can apply to the court for free legal aid. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau or the Legal Services Commission can help you.
In a criminal trial, the prosecution lawyer presents the evidence against you. You or your solicitor will be able to challenge their evidence and present your defence against that evidence and the charges against you.
Before you give evidence to the court, you'll be asked to swear an oath on a holy book of your choice. If you prefer, you can choose to 'affirm' instead. An affirmation is a non-religious oath to tell the truth, and it is just as binding.
You may have to attend court several times, and it is important that you go to court every time your case is heard. If you need to leave court during the day of the trial, you must ask for permission in advance. It's unlikely that it will be granted.
In a Magistrates' Court, the magistrates or district judge will decide whether or not you are guilty of the charge based on the evidence presented.
The magistrates in your case will likely be three local people volunteering their time, and supported by a legally trained advisor. Your case could also be heard by just one magistrate, called a district judge, who is a lawyer.
In a Crown Court, a jury made up of 12 people who represent the general public considers the evidence and decides on the verdict.
When the jury has heard all the evidence they will leave the courtroom, go to a private room and discuss the case until they can all agree on whether they think you are guilty or not guilty.
If they cannot agree, the judge can allow a majority verdict if 10 out of the 12 jurors agree. Once theyve come to a decision, they will return to court, and one member of the jury, known as the foreman, will tell the court the jury's decision.
If you are found not guilty you are 'acquitted' and are free to leave. If you are found guilty, you will be sentenced to punishment by the judge.
If you are convicted (found guilty of the offence), you may be sentenced to prison, given a fine or given a sentence that is served in the community.
That decision could be taken when you plead or are found guilty, or you may have to come back to court for sentencing at a later date. In that case, you could be remanded back to prison until that date, or you could be released on bail.
If your case has been heard in the Magistrates Court, you may be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing.
The court will often order a report to help them decide what sentence is most suitable for you. This process can take up to three weeks and is carried out by a probation officer who will meet you to assess your needs. It is in your interests to work with the officer.
If you decide to appeal against your conviction or sentence, your solicitor can advise you about what happens next.
You can also find out more information about sentencing from the link below.
If you don't turn up to court
It is important that you turn up to court when your case is heard. If you think you will not be able to, tell your solicitor or the court as early as possible.
Failing to turn up (without a court-approved reason) is a crime.
If you do not turn up for your case, then:
- a warrant will be issued for your immediate arrest and you will be kept in custody to be brought back to the court
- your case can be heard without you there, and you will not have a chance to defend yourself
- you will be charged with the extra offence of failing to appear (the maximum penalty for this in Crown Court cases is 12 months in prison even if you are not found guilty of the original charge against you)
- a conviction for failing to appear will go on your criminal record and will influence any future decisions about whether you should be bailed
- you may be remanded in jail until your trial
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