By: Simon B
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Crime and punishment
Whether you’re summoned to the police station or arrested and charged, your case starts in the Magistrates Court unless you’re in Scotland, in which case the court system is different. Some cases, the least serious, or summary offences can be tried only in the Magistrates Court. Other, more serious offences known as triable either way offences can be tried in either the Crown Court or the Magistrates Court. The most serious cases – indictable offences – are transferred to the Crown Court.
If the offence can be tried only in the Magistrates Court, the prosecutor usually the Crown Prosecution Service – must inform the Magistrates and ask for a summons to be issued within six months of the offence being committed. If the Magistrates aren’t informed within six months, you usually can’t be prosecuted, but as with every rule, there are exceptions, particularly in the case of motoring offences.
If an offence can be tried in either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court, you may be charged with an offence you committed years ago.
After it has been decided which court will try the case, you receive a hearing date and are eventually found guilty and sentenced, or acquitted. You may be able to plead guilty by post if the offence is a summary one, such as a minor motoring offence, that doesn’t carry a maximum sentence of more than three months in prison. You can’t plead ‘not guilty’ by post you have to appear in court.
Private individuals can also bring prosecutions in the criminal courts. For example, some shop owners prosecute shoplifting offences cases themselves rather than resorting to the Crown Prosecution Service.
If you are thinking of prosecuting someone for a criminal offence, take legal advice. You may end up paying all the legal costs and facing a claim for compensation if the case goes against you. If you’re found guilty, the court sentences you. Penalties range from suspended sentences and community service orders (where you do community work for a prescribed number of hours) to large fines and periods in prison or both. Maximum sentences also exist for each offence, and a solicitor can tell you what sentence you may be facing.