The crown court system was created by the Courts Act of 1971. It is a court with more power to convict serious offenders compared to the smaller magistrate's court. The crown court deals with serious criminal cases, indictments and appeals that may originate from the magistrate courts. These crimes include sexual offences, murder, robbery and blackmail that have been committed by either an adult or a juvenile. Crown courts have various advantages and disadvantages.
Higher Acquittal Rates
One advantage of crown courts is that they have lower acquittal rates compared to magistrate courts. Unlike magistrate courts, crown courts have a jury which extensively deliberates on the facts of a case before a court decision is handed down. Jury decision-making combined with that of the judge contribute to lower rates of conviction for the sake of conviction. In magistrate's courts, decisions are made solely by the presiding magistrate and these decisions may not always favour the defendant.
If the crown court acquits you of an offence and the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) appeals to the appeals court and wins on a question of law, your acquittal will remain the same. A question of law concerns how the judge interpreted the law. This means that if the crown court rules that the facts surrounding your case are correct and not in dispute, then no appeal can overturn your acquittal. On the contrary, a decision made by the magistrate court and appealed by the CPS at the high court may be overturned and you may be sentenced.
Judge vs. Magistrate
Crown courts are presided over by a judge who has legal training and qualifications. This is advantageous because he is better placed at understanding the law and thus makes more informed decisions than a magistrate would. Magistrates do not usually have legal qualifications even though they preside over court cases. They receive legal advice from court clerks regarding issues of the law and thus they may not be able to make very informed decisions.
A major disadvantage of the crown court is the delays encountered. Due to the complexity or seriousness of cases handled by the crown court, the process may be lengthy. This can have an effect on firsthand witness accounts, as witnesses may forget some of the events they witnessed in a crime scene. Defendants also have a right to expediency in their cases, and the delays may hinder the full realisation of this right.
Compared to the magistrate court, the crown court can hand down the maximum sentence and fines in any case it handles. The magistrate court can only impose a maximum custody of six to 12 months while a crown court can sentence an offender to years. This may be disadvantageous for a defendant who chooses to have his case heard in the crown court instead of a magistrate court in an "either or" case. He risks greater punishment if convicted for a criminal case in a crown court. "Either or" cases are those that can be tried by the crown court or the magistrate court.
Legal aid is available for defendants who claim they cannot afford legal fees. These include those receiving welfare benefits or state pension and those younger than 18 years. However, the crown court has the power to place a Recovery of Defense Costs Order (RDCO) on the defendant if he is convicted. This means that the defendant will pay defence and prosecution fees if the judge deems this as suitable. On the contrary, the magistrate's court does not order defendants to pay these costs.
- Free Beagles: A Brief Guide to Trial Procedure in the Magistrate's Court
- HSR Solicitors: Either Way Offenses
- HM Courts and Tribunal Services: Magistrates and Magistrate's Courts
- Legal Services Commission: Recovery of Defense Cost Orders
- Mary Monson Solicitors: What to Expect in the Magistrates Court -- A Guide for Non-Lawyers