The criminal courts

25 January 2016

The UK Criminal Law Blog, run by criminal barristers, has given us permission to reproduce this overview of the criminal courts in England and Wales.

There are two courts that hear trials (or take a plea of guilty and deal with sentences): the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court.

Some criminal offences can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Court (‘summary only’ offences). More serious offences can be tried either in the Magistrates’ Court or at the Crown Court in front of a judge and jury (‘either-way’ offences). Very serious cases may only be tried in the Crown Court (‘indictable only’ offences).

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Magistrates’ Court


These are the oldest courts in the land and have existed, in one way or another, since the 14th century. They deal with all summary only offences and some (less serious) either way offences.

Almost all cases start in the Magistrates’ Court, no matter what the seriousness—the more serious ones will be ‘sent’ to the Crown Court.

Who are the magistrates?

Magistrates can be either lay or professional.

Lay magistrates (historically called Justices of the Peace—JPs) form the majority of magistrates and are people who are not legally trained. They sit on a voluntary basis around 20 times a year and are drawn from the local community.

As they are not legally qualified, they are assisted by a legal advisor (historically called a clerk) who takes notes of the hearing and any evidence heard. The legal advisor will give advice to the JPs on what the law is (but not in relation to deciding what to make of the evidence).

Lay magistrates will usually sit as a panel of three. Occasionally, usually due to lack of availability, they can sit as a panel of two, although this is generally undesirable due to the risk of them disagreeing. When lay magistrates are sitting in court as judges, they will often be referred to as a ‘lay bench’. One person will be the ‘chair’ who will give the judgment and often lead discussions (if any) in Court.

Professional magistrates are now called District Judge (Magistrates’ Court), or DJ for short (they used to be called Stipendiary Magistrates, which is a term you will still hear being used). They are appointed by the Ministry of Justice and generally have to have been practicing as a lawyer for seven years before they can be considered for an appointment.

Some people are practicing lawyers who sit part-time as a DJ. These are called DDJ (Deputy District Judges) and will sit for about 20 days a year whilst practicing for the rest. They have all the powers of a DJ, except for the fact that they cannot deal with youth cases.

Guidance on who can be a magistrate and further details can be found here.

What do you call a magistrate?

In court, a DJ will be called ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ as the case may be. If there is a lay bench, then you normally pretend you are speaking to the ‘chair’ and address them as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. Some people will address the whole panel as ‘your worships’, although this is becoming old-fashioned.

What do they wear?

Magistrates, whether lay or professional, will wear a dark suit in court, as will the lawyers. Neither the magistrates nor the lawyers wear robes or wigs or anything like that.

Can you appeal?

Appeals against decisions of the magistrates are generally heard by the Crown Court.

Crown Court


Crown Courts date only from 1971, but the courts that they replaced (the old Assizes and Petty Sessions) date back many hundreds of years.

The most serious offences can only be tried or sentenced in the Crown Court. They deal with all the indictable only offences as well as some either way ones.

Who are the judges?

A Crown Court judge will always have been a practicing lawyer for at least 7 years. They are appointed by a branch of the Ministry of Justice, the Judicial Appointments Commission.

Sitting at a trial, the judge will always sit with a jury made up of 12 people who are chosen at random from the electoral roll in the local area. The Judge will make legal decisions and rulings and sum up the facts for the jury, but it is the jury (and only the jury) who can return a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

If the jury finds someone guilty (or they plead guilty) then it is the Judge who will sentence that person. Unlike in some countries, the jury plays no role in sentencing.

As with DDJs, sometimes practising lawyers ‘sit’ part time as judges of the Crown Court. They are called Recorders.

High Court judges sometimes also sit in the Crown Court to deal with the more serious offences (typically murder).

Certain judges who are Senior Crown Court judges have been designated as the ‘Recorder of X’ or ‘Honorary Recorder of X’ with X being a city, borough or district. These Recorders are full timejJudges and should not be confused with part-time Judges (more details can be found here). Generally, if someone is Mr/Mrs/Ms Recorder Smith, then they will be a part-time judge. If it is The Recorder of [Manchester] then it will be a full-time judge.

What do you call a judge?

A Recorder or Crown Court judge is addressed as ‘Your Honour’ in Court. The only exceptions is judges at the Old Bailey (officially called the ‘Central Criminal Court’) and those judges that are the Recorders or Honoury Recorders of a place who are addressed as ‘Your Lordship’, as are all High Court judges.

What do they wear?

A Recorder wears the normal robes that they wear day-to-day in court as a lawyer.

A Crown Court judge will wear a gown, a different wig, and a red sash.

A High Court judge will wear a red gown.

Can you appeal?

Appeals against decisions of the Crown Court are generally heard by the Court of Appeal.

The UK Criminal Law Blog was set up to address inaccurate reports of criminal cases in the press, the lack of public understanding of the criminal justice system and the number of unlawful sentences handed out by the courts. Its explanations of high-profile criminal cases, and other information about the criminal justice system, can be found at

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