Magistrate’s Courts, Crown Courts & County Courts - What is the Difference?

Someone encountering the court system for the first time might well find its workings confusing and daunting. However, if you consult expert barristers working locally in Norfolk, Essex and other areas of East Anglia, it can make the whole process far easier to understand.

As a barrister offering direct access to the public, Marcus Croskell can represent clients at all types of court. Here we describe the three types of court that clients are most likely to encounter:

Magistrates' Courts

The vast majority of criminal cases in the UK are heard in a magistrates' court. Cases may be heard by a bench of three lay magistrates, also known as justices of the peace or JPs. They have support from qualified justices' clerks. Alternatively, a district judge, who is a trained lawyer, may hear the cases alone.

Magistrates' courts always deal with “summary cases”, which are less serious offences such as most motoring cases and lesser assaults, where usually there is no right to jury trial.

They can also deal with some more serious cases, which are known as “either way” offences because they can be heard either at magistrates' court or Crown Court. These include some types of assault and theft cases. However, in this type of case a defendant can decide to opt for jury trial at Crown Court.

A magistrates' court can also decide to refer a case to Crown Court, and will normally do so if it is felt that the likely sentence is beyond their powers of sentencing, of six months for a single offence or 12 months altogether. Criminal barristers can represent clients in magistrates' court, which is especially common in London, but also happens in other areas of the country.

The most serious cases, such as rape and murder, are known as “indictable offences” and must always go to Crown Court. The accused in these cases will still appear in magistrates' court early in the court process, however, before their cases are committed to Crown Court, and will often be represented by a defence barrister.

Magistrates' courts in East Anglia are based in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn, Ipswich, Bury St. Edmunds, Lowestoft, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Peterborough, Basildon, Chelmsford, Colchester and Southend-on-Sea.

Crown Court

Serious criminal cases are heard in the Crown Court, including indictable offences such as murder and rape which cannot be heard at a magistrates' court. Some “either way” offences are also sent to Crown Court, either because a defendant exercises the right to jury trial or because magistrates decide the case is too serious for them to hear. Some people convicted in magistrates' court have to attend the Crown Court for sentencing, because the magistrates' sentencing powers are insufficient.

A High Court judge will normally preside in the most serious cases, such as murder. Other cases will be presided over by either a Circuit Judge or by a Recorder, who is a lawyer sitting as a part-time judge. A jury of 12 people will hear any case where the defendant pleads not guilty, and decide whether they are guilty or not. A criminal defence barrister will normally appear to represent the accused and put their case.

Crown Courts in the East Anglia region are based in Basildon, Cambridge, Chelmsford Ipswich, Norwich and Peterborough.

County Court

County courts are used to hear civil cases, which are non-criminal matters. The types of case which are heard can range from companies trying to recover unpaid debts to contract disputes, people claiming compensation after being injured, insolvency cases and disputes involving wills and inheritance.

District judges and circuit judges hear most county court cases. Some family cases also go to county court, such as custody hearings, and these are heard by specialist family circuit judges.

Lawyers often appear in county court in Norfolk, Essex and other parts of East Anglia, to represent parties in the cases. In many cases county courts share combined buildings with other courts. County courts in the Eastern region are based in Basildon, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Colchester, Ipswich, King's Lynn, Norwich, Peterborough and Southend.

As an expert litigation lawyer, barrister Marcus Croskell appears in all these types of court. He also goes to the High Court, where he has acted in high-value cases, on appeal from lower court judges and on judicial review. Other courts where he has appeared include the Property Chamber, to undertake land disputes, and the Technology and Construction Court. 

Regionally Based Barristers

When you have dealings with any of the different courts described above, it is advantageous to use a barrister who is based regionally and can attend within a wider area, as opposed to being based just in one town. Marcus Croskell is part of East Anglian Chambers, a group of barristers who have offices in Ipswich, Norfolk and Essex. He also serves clients in Cambridgeshire and across the East Anglia region.

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