GOING TO COURT? 10 ESSENTIAL TIPS
1. BE PREPARED
Your chances of a successful outcome are greatly enhanced if you prepare your case thoroughly. The idea of going to court can be a daunting one, but thorough preparation is key to ensuring you present your case to its best advantage. Leave no stone unturned! Now is the time to take out that notebook and start making a list of what you need to do. On this website you will find clear and helpful information to help you understand and prepare for the whole process.
2. BE INFORMED
There is truth to the phrase, ‘knowledge is power!’ The more you understand the whole court process the more you will be able to cope with what can be a stressful and difficult experience. A good base level of knowledge will also greatly assist you in preparing for trial and presenting your case effectively. Take some time to get to know this website; it has general information from what a criminal offence is, to understanding how prosecution decisions are made, to information on how some cases go to the Crown Court and others remain in the Magistrates’ Court all the way through to trial and appeals. There is a wealth of information right here, clearly laid out and ready to help you gain the knowledge you deserve to do justice to your own case.
3. ACT NOW
If you have received paperwork telling you to attend court (such as a summons or a written charge and requisition) or if you have been charged with an offence, don’t put off acting upon it. Similarly, if you have been found guilty or received a harsh sentence and want to appeal, now is the time to take some positive action. It’s common for all of us to ignore things we don’t like, but the legal system is full of procedural time limits and requirements. Be warned, putting it off could seriously damage your chances of success and, in some circumstances, failure to attend court when required can lead to arrest and loss of liberty. The fact that you are here means you have already started on that important journey.
4. GET LEGAL ADVICE
If possible, get legal advice. You can find a lot of information on this website to help you understand what happens at court and to help you prepare your case, but no website can be a substitute for good quality legal advice or representation.
If you are facing a charge that carries a possible sentence of imprisonment it is vital to get professional legal representation. An experienced criminal lawyer (barrister or solicitor) can look at your case and listen to your side of the story then advise you as to the defence(s) available to you and what steps you need to take next. Legal representation at court will also place presentation of your case into the hands of a professional.
If you are not in a position to afford a lawyer for the whole of your trial or you do not qualify to receive legal aid to assist you, you will find it of real assistance to see a lawyer at least once to discuss your case. This could be to discuss the strength of the prosecution case, to receive advice and assistance with preparing for trial, to seek advice on sentence, help with an appeal or advice on legal issues.
5. STAY POSITIVE - INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when facing a criminal charge. You may feel that nobody wants to listen to your side of the story, much less believe you. Well start on a positive note: you do not have to prove you are innocent, the prosecution has to prove you are guilty. This is called the burden and standard of proof and it lies at the heart of a fair criminal justice system. It means (1) the prosecution has the burden of proving guilt and (2) the prosecution must prove it to a high standard; this standard is beyond reasonable doubt (usually referred to in court as the magistrates/jury having to be ‘satisfied so that they are sure’ of guilt).
To take an example, if you were charged with an assault where it was alleged you had punched someone in the face, but you deny being the person that committed the assault and say this was a case of mistaken identity, the prosecution would have to prove the case (by making the magistrates/jury sure that the assailant was you) before they could convict. Even if they thought it was probably you, but were not certain, this would not be enough to find you guilty.
The fact that the prosecution have to prove the case should not detract from the need to get to grips with your own case from the earliest stage. For example, the more clear evidence you can present at trial in support of your own defence the less likely it will be that the prosecution will be able prove your guilt to this high standard. Remember that failing to secure evidence at an early stage (e.g. contacting witnesses) can result in problems later on.
6. REPRESENTING YOURSELF? what you need to know
Some people choose to represent themselves in court (in which case they are referred to as ‘litigants in person’), particularly in the less serious types of cases such as minor driving offences. Always obtain professional legal representation if you can, especially if you are facing a charge which carries a possible sentence of imprisonment, but if your circumstances are such that you decide to represent yourself at court then you have come to the right place – you will find plenty of information on this website to help you, from the trial process itself to understanding how sentences in criminal cases are decided upon and how the appeals process operates. Information is being added to this website all the time so you should always be able find what you need. There is also a handy search function on the home page.
7. understand THE TRIAL PROCESS from start to finish
Criminal lawyers spend a lot of their time in the criminal courts so it is easy to forget that for many people the courts are a strange and unfamiliar environment. On this website you will find clear information about what happens at trial in the Magistrates’ Court and trial in the Crown Court. If you are unsure whether your case is one that can go to the Magistrates’ or the Crown Court we’ve got help on that too in Which Court Will I Go To? A good knowledge of the trial process will aid your understanding at court of exactly what is happening and why, as well as enabling you to anticipate what will happen next. Why not also go to court yourself to watch someone else's case? You can go into the public gallery (as long as you are 14 or over) at a Crown Court or Magistrates' Court and watch a criminal trial or a sentencing hearing. This will add to your knowledge about what to expect in your own case.
8. consider the pros and cons of Electing trial by jury
The offence you are charged with dictates where the case can be heard. Most cases are heard in the Magistrates' Court before a bench of magistrates or a single District Judge. However, the more serious cases either must go to the Crown Court for trial by jury or permit the defendant the opportunity to elect trial by jury. On this website you can find out which court your case will go to as well as the potential advantages and disadvantages of electing trial by jury.
9. discover HOW SENTENCing really works
If you plead guilty or are found guilty of the offence you are charged with, you will be sentenced. Understandably, anyone who faces a criminal charge will want to know what sentence they might receive and this is the area likely to cause the greatest amount of anxiety. However, It is an area where there is a considerable amount of confusion which is why a lot of space has been devoted to it on this website.
It is important to bear in mind that, in the majority of cases, just because a particular type of offence carries a possible sentence of imprisonment does not mean that prison is the inevitable outcome. There are alternative sentences available such as community orders or suspended sentences of imprisonment. Many offences, such as most driving offences, cannot result in imprisonment at all and will often be dealt with by fines together with points on your licence or a period of disqualification. Sentencing guidelines exists for most offences and are used by judges to decide, depending on the particular circumstances of the case, what the appropriate sentence will be. For information on how sentences are calculated and how the sentencing process works look here at our sentencing guide.
10. just in case! get to grips with the APPEALS process
If you are wrongly found guilty and wish to appeal (an appeal against conviction) or you think the sentence you received is too harsh and you want to appeal to get it reduced (an appeal against sentence) you will have to launch an appeal. The appeal process differs depending on whether you are appealing from the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court and strict time limits apply, although in some circumstances you can ask to appeal even after these time limits have expired. The Criminal Cases Review Commission also has the power to refer cases back to the appeal courts that have previously been unsuccessful and sometimes it will be possible to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. In some circumstances, such as where it is alleged a sentence was too light (known as ‘unduly lenient’) the prosecution have a right of appeal. Sometimes things go wrong and the appeals process is there to put it right. The criminal appeals pages on appealing against a harsh sentence and appealing against a wrongful conviction are full of clear and helpful information to assist you.