If you are charged at the police station with having committed a criminal offence the police will give you a date on which you will be required to attend the Magistrates' Court.
Usually the police will release you from the police station to live at your home address, or somewhere else, until the date of your court hearing. This is known as being granted ‘bail’. The police might attach conditions to your bail to lower the risk of releasing you. A number of conditions can be made, including living at a certain address, having to stay indoors between certain hours, reporting to the police station regularly, and avoiding certain areas and/or people.
The police might refuse bail if they are worried that you may not attend your hearing, that you will commit further offences, or that you will interfere with prosecution witnesses. In this case they will keep you overnight at the police station and take you to the court the next morning. The Court would then decide whether to release you on bail or remand you into custody. The latter option will usually be the case if you have several previous convictions or if you have failed to appear at court before, but many different things can affect the decision. See 'Court Bail' below for more information.
Failing to Attend Court
Failing to attend court is a separate offence for which you could receive a fine, be sent to prison, or both. If you do not attend your court hearing, when a new bail decision is to be made, the Court may be less likely to grant you bail and you would then have to wait in prison until the conclusion of your case.
If you are too unwell to go to court then you must get a medical certificate from your GP or from the hospital which clearly states that ‘you are not fit to attend court’. You must give a copy of this medical certificate to the Court as soon as possible.
If you do not attend court a warrant will be issued for your arrest and it is likely that the police will come looking for you at your home address, or you could be stopped on the street.
You should attend the Magistrates’ Court in good time for your hearing. It is best to have a solicitor represent you if possible. You can get your own solicitor or you can ask to speak to the duty solicitor at court who will be able to give you some advice and maybe represent you.
You can apply for legal aid to pay for a solicitor at the Magistrates’ Court. There are two tests to pass before you can be given legal aid:
Interests of justice: This looks at the ‘merits’ of the case. Many things are considered to see if it is serious enough to get legal aid, including: previous convictions; the type of offence; and, the risk of going to prison. In general, the more serious a charge and/or the possible outcome the more likely you are to pass this test. For instance, if you are likely to go to prison if found guilty, you will get legal aid. However, this does not mean that legal aid will be given for all offences that carry a possible prison sentence. Cases of simple drug possession, especially if it is your first offence, will not normally get legal aid unless there are very important reasons about you or your case that mean you should get free advice and representation.
Means: This looks at your financial situation. If you are getting certain benefits, including income-based Jobseekers' Allowance and income-related Employment and Support Allowance, you will pass this test. You should take proof of benefits and your National Insurance number to court with you.
If you are working, yours and your partner’s income and outgoings will be looked at in detail. It is important that you take proof of your income (wage slips, bank statements etc) with you to court. Generally, if your gross income is less than £12,475 you will pass this test, and if it is above £22,325 you will fail the test. If you earn between these amounts your situation will be carefully looked at – depending on your outgoings you may pass the test.
The applicant's income will also be adjusted to account for the number of children they have. Detailed guidance can be accessed here. You can make a hardship application for legal aid even if you fail the means-tested element of the application. The legal aid authority will take into consideration the applicant’s debts, estimated cost of the case, and utility arrears, amongst other things. If an applicant has less than £3,398 of disposable income per year, they will usually receive support from legal aid through a hardship application. Some applicants of legal aid can be required to make monthly contributions depending on their level of income.
A solicitor may be willing to help you fill in the legal aid forms. They will normally do this if they think the merits test will be passed.
If you do not qualify for legal aid then you can pay for a solicitor privately. Most solicitors will be able to offer a fixed fee for a case. It is useful to contact a few solicitors to get the best idea of what a fair price is.
If you cannot afford a solicitor, or do not want one, you can represent yourself. The Bar Council has a detailed guide on representing yourself at court.
At court you or your solicitor will be given a copy of the prosecution papers. If you have a solicitor they will spend some time with you in private talking about the evidence and getting your side of the story.
When you go into court you will be asked if you are guilty or not guilty.
If you do not agree that you committed the offence you have been charged with, you should enter a plea of not guilty. Your case will be put off to another date for a trial.
You can plead guilty to one offence (possession, for example), but not guilty to another offence (for example, intent to supply).
Some cases can be dealt with in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. There will be a separate hearing for these cases, where the Magistrates will check there is enough evidence and then decide if they can deal with it themselves. If they can, you can still decide to go to the Crown Court. Many people like to have a trial in the Crown Court as it will be a jury of 12 people who decide the case and they may understand your situation better than a judge.
If you agree that you committed the offence you are charged with you should enter a plea of guilty. The Court might sentence you straight away or they may need to put it off to another day to allow the Court to decide what sentence to give you. You may be have to see a probation officer who will write a report for the Court about the offence and your personal situation, which the Court can use to help them decide on a sentence. If the case is serious, and the Magistrates think they can’t give you a long enough sentence, it might be sent to the Crown Court for a judge to sentence you.
If your case is a serious case, you will not be asked for a plea and your case will be sent to the Crown Court. You will be given a new date to attend the Crown Court, usually within 6-8 weeks of your first appearance.
If your case is put off to another day, the Court will usually let you go on bail to live at your home address, or somewhere else, until the next hearing. The Court might refuse bail if they are worried that you may not attend your hearing, that you will commit further offences, or that you will interfere with prosecution witnesses. If the Court will not grant bail then you will be kept in prison and have to stay there until your next hearing.
The Court can attach conditions to your bail if they think these will lower the risk of you committing offences, not going to the next hearing, or contacting witnesses. There are many conditions that a Court can make, including living at a certain address, having to stay indoors between certain hours (which may be checked with an electronic tag), not contacting certain people, not going to certain places, and reporting to the police station regularly. They might also ask that someone pays an amount of money into the court which will be lost if you don’t go to your hearings, or agrees to pay an amount of money if that happens. If you break a bail condition you will be arrested and taken back to court, and bail will be looked at again.
If you have tested positive for heroin, cocaine or crack cocaine at the police station and have agreed to go to an assessment, and the Court decide to give you bail, it will be a condition of your bail to go to that appointment and any follow up meetings. If you do not agree to this you will not be given bail and will be kept in prison until the next hearing.