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What are the maximum sentences available in the Crown Court and Magistrates' Court?

The type of offence you face determines the maximum sentence available.  In broad terms the maximum sentence that can be imposed for each type of offence is as follows:

  • Summary Offences (the least serious type of offences) can only be heard in the Magistrates’ Court.  Most summary offences are non-imprisonable, but where they are the maximum sentence that can be imposed in the Magistrates' Court is 6 months (unless the individual offence carries a lesser penalty);
  • Indictable Only Offences (the most serious type of offences) can only be heard in the Crown Court.  Each offence has its own maximum penalty, but since these are the most serious offences it follows that they carry long maximum sentences. For example, murder and manslaughter carry a maximum of life imprisonment; 
  • Either-way Offences (the middle range of offences) are those which can be heard either in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court.  It is the facts of the individual offence which will determine how serious it is and hence whether the sentence will be within the powers of the Magistrates (a maximum of 6 months for a single either-way offence) or whether it will need to go to the Crown Court where the maximum penalty is whatever the maximum term for that offence is.  For example, theft is an either-way offence carrying a maximum penalty of 6 months' imprisonment if dealt with in the Magistrates' Court or a maximum of 7 years' imprisonment if dealt with in the Crown Court.

That is just an overview.  For more detail read on.  If you want to know more about summary, either-way and indictable only offences, have a look at Which Court will I go to? 

Taking each offence type in turn:

MAXIMUM SENTENCES FOR SUMMARY OFFENCES 

Maximum Sentences for Summary Offences

"FOR THOSE SUMMARY OFFENCES THAT ARE IMPRISONABLE, THE MAXIMUM CUSTODIAL SENTENCE THAT CAN BE IMPOSED IS 6 MONTHS’ IMPRISONMENT, UNLESS THE STATUTE PROVIDES FOR A LOWER SENTENCE"

Defendants who plead guilty or who are found guilty of summary offences in the Magistrates’ Court will be sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court (unless they also face more serious matters in the Crown Court). 

The maximum penalty for a summary offence is contained in the statute (the Act of Parliament) that creates it. Many summary offences are non-imprisonable (such as low-level motoring offences, including speeding and driving without due care and attention). For those summary offences that are imprisonable, such as common assault & battery, the maximum custodial sentence that can be imposed is 6 months’ imprisonment, unless the statute provides for a lower sentence.

If a defendant who has pleaded guilty or has been found guilty of a summary offence in the Magistrates’ Court is also due to be sentenced for other matters in the Crown Court, the summary offence can sometimes go to the Crown Court for sentence; this is for administrative convenience and the Crown Court can only pass a sentence for the summary offence that would have been available in the Magistrates’ Court. 

“FOR SOME MINOR SUMMARY OFFENCES, SUCH AS CERTAIN MOTORING OFFENCES, DEFENDANTS WILL OFTEN NOT HAVE TO GO TO THE MAGISTRATES’ COURT FOR SENTENCE AT ALL”

For some minor summary offences, such as certain motoring offences, defendants will often not have to go to the Magistrates’ Court for sentence at all; if they wish to they can simply plead guilty by post (and write down any mitigating circumstances on the form) and they will be informed of the sentence passed. However, if the court is considering disqualification from driving it will require personal attendance.

The maximum fines that can be imposed in the Magistrates’ Court depend on the level of fine available for each offence. Unlimited fines can be imposed in the Crown Court. You can read all about fines in our Fines Guide right here.  You can find a list of common summary offences in Which court will I go to?

MAXIMUM SENTENCES FOR INDICTABLE ONLY OFFENCES

Maximum Sentences for Indictable Only Offences

"INDICTABLE ONLY OFFENCES ARE THE MOST SERIOUS TYPE OF CRIMINAL OFFENCE SO THE MAXIMUM SENTENCES ARE LONG"

Defendants facing indictable only offences can only be tried and sentenced in the Crown Court and will face a sentence of up to the maximum available for the particular offence they are charged with; by their nature, indictable only offences are the most serious type of criminal offence so the maximum sentences are long. Many indictable only offences (including offences such as murder, manslaughter, grievous bodily harm with intent and robbery) carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment.  You can find specific maximum sentences for individual offences in the sentencing guidelines. You can also find a list of common indictable only offences on this website in Which court will I go to?

maximum sentences for Either-Way Offences

Maximum Sentences for Either-Way Offences

"IN ESSENCE, WHAT DETERMINES WHETHER AN EITHER-WAY OFFENCE GOES TO THE CROWN COURT IS (A) WHETHER IT IS FACTUALLY SO SERIOUS THAT THE MAGISTRATES' SENTENCING POWERS (6 MONTHS) WOULD NEVER BE SUFFICIENT, OR (2) THE DEFENDANT ELECTS TO GO TO THE CROWN COURT FOR TRIAL BY JURY"

Either-way offences can be heard either in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court.  In essence, what determines whether an either-way offence goes to the Crown Court is (a) whether it is factually so serious that the Magistrates' sentencing powers (6 months) would never be sufficient, or (2) the defendant elects to go to the Crown Court for trial by jury. To read more about this (and for a list of common either-way offences) click here on Which court will I go to?  

In the Magistrates’ Court, the maximum sentence that can be imposed on an adult defendant for a single either-way offence is 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine.  A defendant facing 2 or more either-way offences can be sentenced to a maximum of 12 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine. You can read more here about fines.

In some circumstances a defendant facing an either-way offence who has (a) indicated a guilty plea at the Magistrates’ Court, or (b) has been found guilty after trial at the Magistrates’ Court will be sentenced at the Crown Court instead. When the Magistrates decide to move sentencing from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court it is known as a committal for sentence.

COMMITTAL FOR SENTENCE TO THE CROWN COURT

Committal for Sentence

The maximum sentence for a single either-way offence at the Magistrates’ Court is 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine (or 12 months and/or a fine for 2 or more either-way offences).  The starting point is that either-way offences should be tried and sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court. However, if the District Judge or Magistrates consider that their sentencing powers are insufficient they can commit the defendant to the Crown Court for sentence where the full maximum sentence for the individual offence becomes available.

COMMITTAL FOR SENTENCE EXAMPLE

The offence of Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) is an ‘either-way’ offence contrary to section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. If an ABH is sentenced in the Magistrates' Court the maximum sentence is 6 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine. If sentenced in the Crown Court the maximum sentence is 5 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine. If the Magistrates/District Judge consider that, due to the seriousness of the offence and any factors relating to the defendant (e.g. previous convictions for assault) that the defendant should be punished with more than 6 months’ imprisonment, they can commit the defendant to the Crown Court for sentence where the greater sentencing powers are available. 

How will the Magistrates or District Judge decide if their sentencing powers are sufficient?

“THE MAGISTRATES/DISTRICT JUDGE WILL CONSULT THE MAGISTRATES’ COURT SENTENCING GUIDELINES”

To determine what the likely sentence should be the Magistrates/District Judge will consult the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines which you can find on the Sentencing Council website. The Sentencing Council also publish a specific online version of the Magistrates' Court Sentencing Guidelines.  You can read about how these guidelines are used to calculate sentences in our Sentencing Guidelines guide.