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Who’s who in the criminal justice system

The legal system in England and Wales has been around for a long time and is widely respected. But it’s also complicated — particularly if you’ve never come into contact with it before. You can find out more about how the system works from some of the organisations involved. 

Some basic information to get you started

Almost all criminal cases begin in a magistrates’ court. Whether they end there or are sent to the Crown Court depends on how serious the crime is.

If a defendant (the person accused of a crime) is under 18, the case will normally be heard in a youth court. Hearings in the youth court are not open to the public and are less formal than adult courts. The most serious offences, however, such as murder or manslaughter, will be dealt with in the Crown Court. 

The magistrate

A magistrate (also known as a ‘justice of the peace’) is someone who lives in the local community, and has been trained to decide on cases heard in the magistrates' court. Magistrates are volunteers, and may also sit alongside a judge in the Crown Court for some cases. In the magistrates’ court, there are normally three magistrates who are supported by a legally trained adviser. 

Sometimes cases are tried by one magistrate, who is a lawyer. They are called a district judge. Magistrates’ courts tend to be less formal places than the Crown Court — for example, magistrates do not wear the white wigs that lawyers and judges wear in the Crown Court.

The judge

The jury

The prosecution

The defence

Expert witnesses

Sentencing

Appeals

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