By: Simon B
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The criminal courts
If the police arrest and then charge you with committing a criminal offence in England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), a Government department, decides whether you should be prosecuted. (In Scotland, the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal play the role of the CPS.)
The police often complain that they do all the legwork on a case, and then the CPS decides not to prosecute. When that happens, it’s usually because the CPS feels that it doesn’t have enough evidence to obtain a conviction. In some cases, the police themselves carry out prosecutions, and in the case of tax fraud, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will prosecute.
If the CPS gives the go-ahead to prosecute you, it prepares a case against you and presents it in court.
All criminal cases start in the Magistrates Court. The less serious or summary offences, such as shoplifting or illegal parking, start and finish there. In Magistrates court you can still be sent to prison, get fines, or do community service work. More serious offences, such as burglary or assault, can be tried in the Magistrates Court or sent to a higher court, the Crown Court to be tried by a jury. The Magistrates will decide whether a case goes to the Crown Court, and they may send it there if they feel that a jury trial would be more appropriate or that they can’t hand out a severe enough punishment. The Crown Court tries by jury all the most serious offences, such as manslaughter and murder, rape, and arson.
The Crown Court also deals with appeals against decisions made in the Magistrates Court. The Court of Appeal Criminal Division deals with Appeals against Crown Court decisions. The House of Lords sits at the top of the tree and is the last resort for an appeal.
In Scotland, the Lord Advocate brings all the prosecutions, and the Advocate Depute prosecutes. The least serious summary cases, such as drunkenness charges and petty theft, are dealt with in District Courts, located in each local authority area. Sheriffs Courts deal with more serious offences. If they feel they can’t hand out tough enough penalties, they can hand the case on to the High Court to be heard in front of a jury. The High Court also deals with the most serious cases the Solemn cases. The High Court is the highest court of appeal for criminal cases in Scotland.
Northern Ireland has the same system of Magistrates and Crown Courts as England and Wales. The main difference in criminal law in Northern Ireland is in the handling of cases relating to terrorism.