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.

For more information on the criminal justice system create a free account on My Support Space – a free online resource containing interactive guides (including journey to justice) to help you move forward after crime.

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.

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 is responsible for overseeing the hearing, ruling on points of law and ensuring that the defendant gets a fair trial. Where the defendant is found ‘guilty’ or pleads ‘guilty’, the judge will pass a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime and takes into account the defendant’s personal circumstances, and whether they have previously been convicted of similar offences.
There are 12 members of the public on a jury. After listening to all the evidence during the trial in the Crown Court, and any direction that the judge may give them, they decide whether the defendant is guilty. When all the jurors agree that a defendant is guilty or innocent, it is known as a unanimous verdict. If they can’t all agree, they may be asked by the judge to pass a majority verdict where at least 10 of them agree.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutes most cases in the criminal courts. The CPS is independent — it’s not part of the police or the courts. The CPS prosecutes cases on behalf of the Crown, and while it will listen to the views of victims, it makes its decision about prosecuting based on the admissible evidence that’s available, and public interest factors. It is guided in its decision making by the Code for Crown Prosecutors.

The CPS employs lawyers who are called Crown Prosecutors or Crown Advocates. They also employ associate prosecutors who are not lawyers, but who are trained to present simple cases in the magistrate’s court. In the Crown Court, the CPS may prosecute the case through one of its Crown Advocates, or instruct a local barrister to prosecute on its behalf. The CPS is not the only prosecutor; criminal prosecutions can be brought by other government agencies and designated bodies on matters such as TV licensing, and environmental or health and safety violations.

The defendant is entitled to be legally represented in criminal proceedings, whether they pay for their legal representation themselves, or they qualify for legal aid. The defence team will take instructions from the defendant and advise them on legal matters. This will include evaluating whether the defendant has a viable defence based on the evidence presented by the prosecution.

An expert witness is usually someone such as a doctor or forensic scientist, who uses their expertise to interpret the evidence, either in support of the prosecution or to help the defence case.

If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty by the court or jury, the magistrates or a judge will decide on the most appropriate sentence to reflect the crime. The sentencing process is quite complicated, and has to follow sentencing guidelines. These guidelines help to ensure that there is a consistent approach to sentencing for similar offences across all courts.

Find out more about sentencing.

A person convicted by the Crown Court can appeal to the Court of Appeal (criminal division) against their conviction or the sentence. If their initial appeals are rejected, they can apply for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. Someone convicted by a magistrates’ court or youth court can appeal against the conviction (provided they did not plead guilty) or sentence to the Crown Court. Their appeal will usually be heard by a judge sitting with two magistrates.