Criminal law regulates how crimes are investigated, tried, and punished. This body of law covers all crimes that occur in the UK, from minor traffic infractions to white-collar crime such as tax evasion and fraud, and serious crimes such as assault and murder.
Classification of Crime
Crime is classified in multiple ways. For instance, crime can be classified according to who or what the victim of a crime is, or how serious the crime is perceived to be.
Nature of the victim
Crimes against a person: the victim is a person. This can include violent crime such as murder or assault, as well as crimes where the victim is not physically hurt.
Crimes against society: the “victim” is a law; for instance drug possession or distribution.
Crimes against justice: in a crime such as perjury, the “victim” is the justice system.
Nature of the offense
For all kinds of crime, the first hearing takes place in the magistrates court. The nature of the offense dictates what happens next.
Summary offenses are the least serious kind of crime, and are resolved in the magistrates court. These include minor traffic infractions and certain kinds of nuisance offenses.
Indictable-only offenses are those that are too serious to be resolved in the magistrates court. For instance, violent crimes such as murder and rape are redirected to a crown court after the initial magistrates court hearing.
There is a third class of crime that falls in between summary and indictable-only offenses. These include theft, burglary, and serious assaults. Whether these are tried in a magistrates court or a crown court is decided on a case-by-case basis.
Procedures in Criminal Law
Criminal law is a counterpoint to civil law, where cases are brought by individual members of the public. In criminal law, cases are brought to court by the police acting on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service.
Magistrates court versus crown court
When someone is charged with a crime their initial hearing takes place in a magistrates court. What happens in the magistrates court depends on the nature of the crime and how the accused pleads.
If a defendant pleads guilty to a summary crime, they can be sentenced at the initial hearing, or the magistrate may decide to impose the sentence at a later date. For instance, this happens when the magistrate wants more information about the case before making a decision.
If a defendant pleads innocent to a summary crime they then have the chance to plead their case in the magistrates court, either immediately or at a later date.
A magistrate can impose a maximum sentence of up to 12 months in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. As a result, magistrates do not have the power to hand down sentences for complicated or serious crimes. This is why many types of crime must be referred to a crown court for trial and sentencing. Most serious crimes are referred to a crown court whether the defendant pleads innocent or guilty.
Trial, Verdict, and Sentencing
When a defendant pleads innocent to a crime they plead their case in a magistrates court or crown court, depending on the crime they are charged with. During the trial, the defendant and the prosecution present evidence and witnesses to support their case. They also have the opportunity to challenge evidence presented by opposing counsel.
Once both sides have presented their evidence the magistrate, judge, or jury must decide on a verdict. In criminal law the prosecution has the burden of proof, meaning they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime they’ve been charged with.
If the verdict is not guilty, the defendant is free to go. If the verdict is guilty, the magistrate or judge must decide on a sentence. They may do this immediately after the verdict is read, or at a later date.
Criminal Law Solicitors
Depending upon the circumstances a criminal law solicitor may be required either to help defend against a case or to help prove that a business or individual was actually guilty of a crime.
Anyone who has been convicted of a crime has the right to lodge an appeal. They can appeal either their conviction or their sentence and must start the appeal process within 28 days of conviction or sentencing. Appeals are reviewed by a judge, who determines whether there are grounds for appeal.
If the judge decides there are grounds for appeal the defendant presents their case at a new hearing. If they win their case their conviction may be overturned, or their sentence reduced. If the judge decides not to grant the appeal the defendant can lodge a second appeal, requesting the decision be reviewed by a panel of judges.