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Criminal and Civil Court Structures

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The criminal court system has many levels of superiority (refer to diagram 1.1 in Appendices). Lower courts are bound by all superior court decisions within the hierarchy. The Magistrates court is the lowest court in the criminal system; they do not create binding precedence and therefore are not bound by their previous decisions (Book1). The Magistrates Court is usually the first point of contact for approximately 97% of all summary offence cases, such as motoring offences, minor assault and low value criminal damage. The maximum fine that the Magistrates can impose is £5000 and/or 6 months imprisonment for a single offence. The Crown Court has much more authority and sentencing powers as they tend to concern themselves with more serious cases, which need a great deal more legal knowledge. The maximum sentence that can be imposed by the Crown Court is life imprisonment and there is no limit to the amount that they can fine an individual/organisation.

The Legal personnel present in the Magistrates court are the lay magistrates. Lay magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on behalf of the crown. The local advisory committee for the area advises the chancellor on the candidates for magistrates, to enable him to make a decision. Lay people are not paid for the work they do, as the position is on a voluntary basis and they only receive a small loss of earnings allowance and their expenses. Magistrates do not have much, if any legal experience or knowledge. The only criteria they must meet are six qualities that define their suitability (book1).

Although they are not legally qualified they are still referred to in court as ‘your worship’ as they hold a position of authority. The Magistrates sit at the front of the Court on a raised Bench to show their authority. The legal advisor is a professionally trained person within the law profession, who resides in the Magistrate’s Court, to advise the lay people on the relevant points of law in accordance with the case. However, the magistrates are not compelled to take the advice of their advisor but as he/she is the only professionally trained body that they have on hand to advise them, the advisors points frequently hold considerable weight.

The court Clerk is present for the majority of the court proceedings in all courts. They sit in front of the judge’s bench (generally next to the legal advisor) and assist the judge by handling the administration of the court operations. They organise all the paper work from both parties of the case, in order to save time and confusion. They can also issue releases and warrants if necessary. The court clerk is usually the only person who may exchange messages and information between the jury and the judge. Occasionally, it may be the job of the court Clerk to handle any video links from outside the court.

The Court Usher generally sits either at the side of the public gallery and close to the main entrance of the court or directly in front of the judges bench. The main role of the Usher is to ensure that the courtroom runs smoothly and efficiently by informing the Clerk of any problems that may arise. The Usher will announce each case to the judge and then call for the defendant to the dock and notify the court of who is representing the defendant (http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/resources/teaching-and-learning-practices/characters/#usher). The Usher swears in the Witnesses and jurors and also performs various administrative tasks through the court proceedings. Whilst the judge is given his judgement the Usher will stand inside the courtroom, in front of the court entrance to prevent anyone from entering. It is also the job of the Usher to ensure all members of the court are hydrated by offering water to them if they need any.


A defendant is someone whom court proceedings have been brought against (Oxford, Dictionary of Law). The defendant will sit in court throughout the hearing and trial until a verdict has been reach and sentencing has been passed by the presiding judge or jury. However, they tend to sit in the dock during the court proceedings. If the defendant is required to give evidence, they swear an oath; on their chosen holy book if they are religious or they may just swear on themselves (affirmity) to be an honest person if not. The defendant is always presumed innocent until they are proven guilty; therefore their civil rights still remain in court. However, if the accused fails to attend proceedings without informing the Court before hand, a warrant for their arrest can be issued. (www.directgove.co.uk/CrimeJusticeAndThe Law)

Defence solicitor/barrister

To the left hand side of the front bench, facing the Judge, sits the defence solicitor or barrister in the Court. The main aim of the defence is to persuade the Judge or Jury of the innocence of the defendant, or if admitting guilt, negotiating for their client, by means of presenting supporting evidence, as well as questioning witnesses. The defence solicitor will have often worked with the defendant’s case from the beginning and would act in an advisory capacity, should the case require a barrister. A barrister is appointed by the solicitor and not the defendant, and is usually appointed as a specialist to the relevant case. Barristers are solicitors, who have then undertaken professional training, leading to the Bar examinations, and have became members of the Bar Council. The solicitors and barristers will use citations to make recommendations to the Judge, during trial and sentencing.


In the criminal court system, the prosecution will be working on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service, which is the States prosecuting agency. Prior to 1986, the Police would bring criminal proceedings, however this was deemed an unfair system as the Police tended to bring any case to court, even with weak evidence, meaning that a lot of time and money was spent for very little reward. The CPS was given the authority to decide whether proceedings could be brought to the court. The prosecuting Barrister or Solicitor will then sit on the right hand side of the front bench, facing the Judge(s), and it is their responsibility to prove that the defendant has broken the law. The burden is then placed on the Prosecuting Barrister/ Solicitor to prove that the defendant is guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt.


In court proceedings a witness is a person who gives firsthand evidence about the crime, under oath. They can either verbally give the evidence in court or by video link or they can produce a written statement that is read out in the presence of the judge and jury. If a witness refuses to attend court on the date set, a subpoena can be issued to command that person to attend the trial.


The jury are a group of lay persons who are selected randomly from the electoral register to attend cases in the Crown Court. Fifteen members of the public are originally selected to attend court and from those 15 people, 12 names are randomly chosen to form the jury for the trial. Anyone over the age of 18, who is on the electoral register and have been a resident of the UK and British Isles for at least five years, are eligible for jury service; although there are exceptions and certain members of the public who may be excused. It is the job of the jury to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty from the evidence that they are presented with. The leading judge on the case will advise the jurors on the point’s law and summarize the evidence that they must consider in reaching their verdict. The verdict is then announced to the court.

Probation and court welfare services

The probation services are available to give recommendations to the court about the sentencing of a defendant, as they look into the circumstances of the offender. They also give any information to the judge as to whether the defendant has complied with their bail or community service order. The court welfare service also provides recommendations and information for cases involving children or teens under the age of 18. An example of a welfare service is Cafcass, who act independent of the courts, social services and other education and health agencies. They both act as a witness in court and give evidence to assist the judge/jury in the decision.

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