SHOULD I ELECT TRIAL BY JURY?
There are a number of factors to take into account in deciding whether to elect trial in the Crown Court and have a jury reach a verdict, or instead to let the Magistrates or a District Judge make that final decision of Guilty or Not Guilty.
Do I have a right to trial by jury?
"The more serious ‘either-way’ offences can be tried either in the Magistrates’ Court or by a jury in the Crown Court"
Not always. It depends on the offence you are charged with. Certain types of offences (known as summary offences) can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Court (where trials are heard by Magistrates or by a District Judge), but the more serious ‘either-way’ offences can be tried either in the Magistrates’ Court or by a jury in the Crown Court. The most serious ‘indictable only’ offences can only be tried in the Crown Court.
For defendants facing either-way offences, the Magistrates/District Judge will send the case for trial to the Crown Court where they consider it too serious to stay in the Magistrates’ Court; in such a situation the defendant will have a trial in the Crown Court before a jury whether they like it or not. In other either-way cases the Magistrates will accept that they can try the offence; in this situation it is up to the defendant to either agree to stay in the Magistrates’ Court or to elect trial in the Crown Court. Young people (under 18s) do not have the right to choose trial by jury; the overwhelming majority of cases involving juveniles are dealt with in the Youth Court and only those cases that are particularly serious or involve other defendants who are adults can be sent to the Crown Court.
You can find more information on this website about the different types of offences and how cases travel from the Magistrates’ to the Crown Court here in Which court will I go to?
What exactly happens at a jury trial in the Crown Court?
What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of jury trial?
If you are charged with an either-way offence should you elect trial by jury at the Crown Court?
It must be stressed that not everyone agrees in this area, but many lawyers who have acted for clients in the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court share similar views. What follows incorporates many such views and is a rough guide to the advantages and disadvantages of trial by jury.
Advantages of Jury Trial
A trial by your equals
"The jury system is considered to be the fairest method of reaching a decision as to whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty"
In a criminal case a jury is formed of 12 people who do not know you and who will have no direct knowledge of the case they are to try. A jury is chosen at random from people on the electoral register. As such the jury comprises individuals of various ages, with different life experiences and often from contrasting backgrounds. As a group they are the judges of the facts, so they weigh up the evidence, then apply the law as directed by the judge. It is the jury, not the judge, who decide upon a verdict and no jury can be told that they must find a defendant guilty. Juries pool their common sense and arrive at a verdict having listened to all of the evidence. For many lawyers working daily in the criminal courts the jury system is considered to be the fairest method of reaching a decision as to whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty of a criminal offence.
"The conviction rate in the Magistrates’ Court is significantly higher than in the Crown Court"
The conviction rate in the Magistrates’ Court is significantly higher than in the Crown Court. There are a number of views about why this is and care has to be taken over statistics in this area because published conviction rates often include those who plead guilty as well as those who are found guilty after trial. However, many criminal lawyers agree that juries are more likely to give defendants the benefit of the doubt. Many people do not get the opportunity to do jury service, but those that do usually take the whole process very seriously; it is their chance to take part in a crucial civic role; most do only two weeks of jury service and approach the task of judging a fellow human being in a conscientious and fair-minded way. The brief tenure of a jury can be contrasted with that of District Judges who work full time in the Magistrates’ Court, or of Magistrates who, although working only part-time, will often have judged cases regularly over many years. Some lawyers take the view that over time some District Judges and Magistrates can become case-hardened and cynical in their approach and are therefore less likely than jurors to give a defendant the benefit of the doubt. Of course, many Judges and Magistrates are equally open-minded, but the statistics bear out that, at trial, juries are more likely to find defendants Not Guilty.
Different functions of judge and jury
In the Crown Court all matters of law are dealt with by the judge in the absence of the jury. This means that if a judge excludes evidence (such as a confession which the judge considered unreliable, or previous convictions which the prosecution wanted to rely upon) the jury will hear nothing about this evidence during the course of the trial. In the Magistrates' Court there is no jury, so if the Magistrates or a District Judge were asked to exclude the same evidence, even if they agreed to do so they would still have heard all about it before they went on to try the case; it might be difficult for them to remove that information from their minds when deciding upon a verdict.
In the Crown Court all judges are professional judges whereas in the Magistrates’ Court there are some professional judges (District Judges) but the remainder (Magistrates) are volunteers who are not professional lawyers. Magistrates are guided in legal and procedural matters by the Justices’ clerk. In the Magistrates’ Court if the legal submissions are especially complex the case will usually be dealt with by a District Judge, but in the Crown Court legal arguments will always be heard by experienced legal professionals. Some lawyers therefore take the view that cases of legal complexity are often best tried in the Crown Court.
Disadvantages of Jury Trial
In the event that you do not win your case you may have to pay prosecution costs which are substantially more in the Crown Court than for an equivalent trial in the Magistrates’ Court.
"Cases move through the Magistrates’ Court far more quickly than in the Crown Court"
Cases move through the Magistrates’ Court far more quickly than in the Crown Court. Even though the process of listing cases for trial has been streamlined in the Crown Court, it will still take longer before the trial is even reached. Even when a date is given for a trial in the Crown Court it does not mean the trial will actually take place on that date due to other cases which overrun or for numerous other reasons. Case management procedures are used to attempt to ensure that cases are ready to proceed when they are meant to and that the system runs reasonable efficiently, but this still does not stop the Crown Court being dogged by delays.
The Crown Court is a formal place (some would call it ‘stuffy’). Barristers wear wigs and gowns as do the judges, whereas in the Magistrates' Court judges and lawyers wear suits and (usually) smart clothing, but not formal dress. The procedures and some of the language have a far greater formality than in the Magistrates' Court. For these reasons some people will find the atmosphere unsettling.
"In short, the appeals process from the Crown Court is far more involved than from the Magistrates' Court"
If you want to appeal from the Magistrates’ Court against conviction (i.e. being found guilty) or sentence (where you consider your punishment is too harsh) you have the right to do so and the procedure is relatively straightforward. By contrast, appealing against conviction or sentence from the Crown Court is a far more complex process. You do not have an automatic right to appeal but have to apply for ‘leave’ (i.e. permission) from a senior judge before the Court of Appeal will hear your case. In short, the appeals process from the Crown Court is far more involved than from the Magistrates' Court. Have a look at How to appeal against a harsh sentence and How to appeal against being found guilty for more.
There is a perception that defendants who elect Crown Court trial are likely to get a longer sentence than they would receive in the Magistrates’ Court. Simply because a defendant who faces an either-way offence elects trial in the Crown Court rather than the Magistrates' Court should not mean that their sentence should be increased in the event that they are found guilty. However, judges have quite a lot of flexibility in sentencing (even within sentencing guidelines) and Crown Court Judges are used to imposing far longer sentences than their counterparts in the Magistrates’ Court. For more information generally you can read our sentencing guide here.