"Step into the Defendant's Box: An Inside Look at Going to Court"
Police Station Charges
If you are suspected of committing a criminal offense and are charged at the police station, the police will provide you with a court date where you are to appear before the Magistrates' Court.
The police may grant you bail and release you from the police station to your home address or another location until your court hearing. However, certain conditions may be attached to your bail, such as reporting to the police station regularly, staying at a specific address, avoiding certain individuals and areas, and adhering to a curfew.
In some cases, bail may be refused if the police have reason to believe that you will not appear for your court hearing, commit more offenses, or interfere with prosecution witnesses. You may then be held overnight at the police station and taken to court the following day. The court will determine whether to release you on bail or remand you into custody. The latter option is more likely if you have a history of multiple convictions or have previously failed to appear in court. For more information on court bail, see below.
Failing to Attend Court
Failing to attend your court hearing is a separate offense that may result in a fine or imprisonment, or both. If you miss your hearing, the court may be less inclined to grant you bail. As a result, you may have to wait in jail until your case is concluded.
In the event that you cannot attend court due to illness, you must have a medical certificate from your GP or hospital indicating that you are unfit to attend court. You should present a copy of this certificate to the court as soon as possible.
If you fail to attend your hearing, a warrant for your arrest may be issued, and the police may visit your home or stop you on the street.
It is best to arrive at the Magistrates' Court on time for your hearing. If possible, hire a solicitor to represent you. You can contact a duty solicitor at the court who may offer advice and represent you.
You may apply for legal aid to pay for a solicitor at the Magistrates’ Court. To be eligible for legal aid, you must pass two tests:
The interests of justice: This test considers the severity of the case and examines previous convictions, the nature of the offense, and the possibility of imprisonment. Generally, the more serious the charge and/or the potential consequences, the more likely you are to pass this test. For instance, if you are likely to go to prison if found guilty, you will qualify for legal aid. There are some offenses, such as simple drug possession, that will not usually qualify for legal aid unless there are significant reasons regarding your case.
Means: This test assesses your financial situation. If you are receiving certain benefits, including income-based Jobseekers' Allowance and income-related Employment and Support Allowance, you will pass this test. You will need to bring proof of benefits and your National Insurance number to court.
If you are employed, your and your partner's income and expenses will be thoroughly examined. You should bring evidence of your income, such as your pay slips and bank statements, to court. Generally, if your gross income is under £12,475, you will pass this test. If your gross income is over £22,325, you will fail the test. If your income falls within this range, your situation will be examined carefully. Depending on your expenses, you may pass the test.
An applicant's income will be adjusted based on the number of children they have. For more information on means testing criteria, see here. Even if you fail the means test, you can apply for legal aid on the grounds of hardship. The legal aid authority will consider the applicant's debt, anticipated case costs, utility arrears, and other factors. If an applicant's disposable income per year is less than £3,398, they may receive legal aid via a hardship application. Depending on their income level, some legal aid applicants may be required to make monthly contributions.
Interested in legal aid? Consider seeking assistance from a solicitor to help you complete the necessary forms. Typically, they will only offer their services if they believe that you qualify, based on the merits test.
If you do not meet the legal aid criteria or if you simply prefer to hire a solicitor, you may do so. Most solicitors offer a fixed fee for their services. Do not hesitate to contact several solicitors to determine a fair price.
If you cannot afford a solicitor or do not desire one, you may represent yourself in court. For this, the Bar Council offers a comprehensive guide on representing yourself in court.
Affirming or Denying the Charges
Upon arrival in court, you or your solicitor will be presented with the charges against you. If you have hired a solicitor, they will review the evidence and discuss the situation with you privately.
Inside the courtroom, you will be required to declare whether you are guilty or not guilty.
If you disagree with the charges, enter a plea of not guilty. The hearing will be rescheduled for a future date to allow for a trial.
If you admit to committing some of the offenses but not all, you can plead guilty to some charges and not guilty to others.
Some cases may be presented in either the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court. At a separate hearing, the Magistrates will verify if there is enough evidence and rule on whether they can manage the case. You may still request to move the case to the Crown Court, where you can have the benefit of a jury's decision rather than a judge's, which may understand your situation better.
If you agree with the charges against you, plead guilty. The court may either issue a ruling right away or postpone it to another day to consider the sentence. You may also be required to meet with a probation officer who will write a report on your predicament and the crime to assist the court in determining a sentence. If your offense is significant, the Magistrates may refer it to the Crown Court for a more serious sentence.
If your case is substantial, you will not have to plead, and the hearing will be referred to the Crown Court. You can expect to receive a new hearing date within 6 to 8 weeks of your initial appearance.
Following your first hearing, if the case is adjourned, the court will likely grant you bail to your home address or an alternate location until the next hearing. The court may, however, refuse bail if they believe there is a risk that you might not attend, commit additional offenses, or interfere with witnesses. In such instances, you may be detained in prison until the next hearing.
The court may impose bail restrictions to reduce the likelihood of criminal conduct or indicate that you would not show up at your next hearing or contact witnesses. There are several restrictions that the court may impose, such as residence at a certain location, remaining indoors between certain hours, refraining from speaking with particular persons, avoiding certain areas, and routinely reporting to the police station. They might also request someone to furnish the court with a sum of money depending on whether you go to your hearings or agree to pay an amount if you fail to do so. Breaking any of the bail conditions leads to your arrest and a subsequent court hearing.
If you tested positive for heroin, cocaine, or crack cocaine at the police station and subsequently agreed to an appointment, it is mandatory that you attend it and any upcoming sessions as part of your bail conditions. Failure to comply with the rules would result in your imprisonment until the next hearing.
Criminal Justice Act 2003
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