The Criminal Justice System (CJS) cannot work without the support of the community. In particular, victims and witnesses play a vital part in the justice process. If crimes aren’t reported, offenders can’t be brought to justice.
Support and advice is available to victims and witnesses whether or not they report crime, but if they do come forward their information could make a big difference in bringing a criminal to justice. Crime can be reported in the following ways: Emergencies by dialling 999 or non-emergency crimes by contacting your local police force.
When a crime is reported, the first people involved are the police.
Their role is to investigate the crime, identify suspects, catch them and question them. Once their investigations are complete, the police will either:
• Charge the suspect, release (bail) them – but with a summons (an order) to return at a later date or deal with them by using an out-of-court disposal (an alternative to prosecution). This includes:
For adults (18+) a cannabis warning, simple caution, conditional caution, penalty notice for disorder and fixed penalty notice (for driving offences).
For youths (10-17) a reprimand, final warning, a penalty notice for disorder (only relates to 16 and 17 year olds) or release someone without charge.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decides whether or not to prosecute people in court. However, the police still investigate the alleged offence and decide some out-of-court disposals.
In most cases, Crown Prosecutors will decide whether to charge a person with a criminal offence, and will determine the appropriate charge or charges.
In those cases where the police determine the charge, which are usually more minor and routine cases, they apply the same principles.
The CPS will decide whether or not to prosecute by applying the Code for Crown Prosecutors to the facts of the particular case.
Each case the Crown Prosecution Service receives from the police is reviewed to make sure that it is right to proceed with a prosecution. In most cases, Crown Prosecutors are actually responsible for deciding whether a person should be charged with a criminal offence, and if so, what that offence should be.
When deciding whether a case should be prosecuted in the courts, Crown Prosecutors consider the alternatives to prosecution in appropriate circumstances.
When a file is received from the police, a Crown Prosecutor will read the papers and decide whether or not there is enough evidence against the defendant and if it is in the public interest to bring that person to court.
Because circumstances can change, the Crown Prosecutor must keep the case under continual review. If the Crown Prosecutor is thinking of changing the charges or stopping the case, they will contact the police wherever possible. This gives the police the chance to provide more information that may affect the decision.
Although the police and the CPS work closely together, both organisations are completely independent of each other, and the final responsibility for the decision as to whether or not to proceed with an offence that has been charged rests with the CPS.
Virtually all criminal cases start in the magistrates’ courts. The less serious offences are handled entirely in the magistrates’ court. Over 95% of all cases are dealt with in this way. The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, to be dealt with by a judge and jury.
Magistrates deal with three kinds of cases:
• Summary offences. These are less serious cases, such as motoring offences and minor assaults, where the defendant is not entitled to trial by jury.
• Either-way offences. As the name implies, these can be dealt with either by the magistrates or before a judge and jury at the Crown Court. Such offences include theft and handling stolen goods. A suspect can insist on their right to trial in the Crown Court. Similarly, magistrates can decide that a case is sufficiently serious that it should be dealt with in the Crown Court – which can impose tougher punishments.
• Indictable-only offences, such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. These must be heard at a Crown Court.
If the case is an indictable-only offence, the involvement of the Magistrates’ Court is brief. A decision will be made on whether to grant bail and other legal issues, like reporting restrictions, will be considered. The case will then be passed to the Crown Court. If the case is to be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court, the defendant will have to enter a plea.
If they plead guilty or if they are later found to be guilty, the magistrates can impose a sentence of up to six months imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000. If the defendant is found not guilty (if they are ‘acquitted’), they are judged innocent in the eyes of the law and should be free to go – provided there are no other cases against them outstanding.
Cases are heard either by three lay magistrates or one District Judge. The lay magistrates, or ‘Justices of the Peace’, as they are also known, are local people who volunteer their services. They don’t have formal legal qualifications, but are given legal and procedural advice by qualified clerks. District Judges are legally qualified, paid, full-time professionals and are usually based in the larger cities.
The Crown Court deals with:
• Indictable-only offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery
• Either-way offences transferred from the Magistrates’ Court
• Appeals from the Magistrates’ Court
• Sentencing decisions transferred from the Magistrates’ Court. This can happen if magistrates decide, once they have heard the details of a case that it warrants a tougher sentence than they are allowed to impose.
Because of the seriousness of offences tried in the Crown Court, these trials take place with a judge and jury. The jury – ordinary members of the public selected at random – decides if the defendant is guilty.
If the defendant is found not guilty, they are discharged and no conviction is recorded against their name. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge decides on an appropriate sentence.
When deciding what sentence to impose, magistrates and judges have to take account of both the facts of the case and the circumstances of the offender.
A sentence needs to:
• Protect the public
• Punish the offender fairly and appropriately
• Enable the offender to make amends for their crime
• Contribute to crime reduction by stopping reoffending
• Reform and rehabilitate the offender.
The courts can impose four levels of sentence, depending on the seriousness of the offence:
• Community sentences
Fines are the most common option used by the courts. Community sentences can include ‘restorative justice’ – making amends directly to the victims of crime. The most severe punishment, imprisonment, is generally only used for the most serious offences.
If a crime is an imprisonable offence, it will have a maximum term laid down by Parliament. Judges and magistrates are also given sentencing guidelines – designed to provide consistency throughout the criminal justice process. There are also fixed minimum sentences for some serious repeat offenders.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex