Video 1 – Introduction to the Magistrates’ Court
Hello, I’m Rod Hayler of Old Bailey Solicitors and this is the first in a series of short videos designed to help people who are representing themselves in the Magistrates' Court.
These videos are not aimed at lawyers or advocates - they receive their own training. People choosing to represent themselves has become more common in the last few years:
Some people are not eligible for legal aid and either cannot or do not want to afford a lawyer.
Some feel the matter is relatively simple and they won't require the assistance of one.
You might think I would always recommend you instruct a solicitor and there are certainly circumstances when you should - but in many cases there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to make a good job of it with a little help.
This short series of videos is designed to provide you with some knowledge, skills and structure so that the whole business of going to court is not quite so daunting.
I plan to cover a number of topics:
- Entering pleas and sentencing options for the court
- A basic plea in mitigation
- Potential pitfalls in sentencing
I'm going to start with the structure of the magistrates' court and some procedure.
If you've got to go to the Magistrates' court then you've either been charged in a police station or you've received a summons or postal requisition.
You will be facing an allegation and the paperwork will specify which piece of law makes it an offence.
The best thing to do at this stage is to go on to the CPS website (www.cps.gov.uk) and find out a little bit more about it:
This is a great resource - it will tell you what has to be proved and what sentence the offence carries.
Offences fall into 3 broad categories.
Summary only which includes most motoring offences, minor assaults and some public disorder.
Indictable only (such as murder, robbery or rape : for these you definitely need a lawyer)
Either Way (these include thefts, burglaries, drugs offences and more serious motoring offences such as dangerous driving : these offences vary in their gravity)
Except in the more serious and complex cases - the Magistrates are going to expect to make some progress at the first hearing.
They will want to know what your plea is. We will deal with that as a separate video but if you are in any doubt as to your plea - you probably do need to speak to a lawyer.
In many cases you will be eligible for some free help from the duty solicitor at court. Take it if you can.
In broad terms - people who plead NG need to have a trial and people who plead G need to be sentenced.
These days, many cases can be dealt with at the first hearing if a guilty plea is entered
If the court is going to deal with your case at that first hearing you need to be ready for it. I’ll deal with mitigation in another video.
If you are attending court for the first time, follow these basic rules:
- turn up in good time.
- tell the usher you have arrived and ask if there are any papers in your case that you can have.
- Ask to be introduced to the prosecutor and when you meet them, be polite and explain you are on your own. If you are well prepared and civil they should be pleased to help you but remember they are not there to represent your interests.
- Be polite to the court staff – their assistance can make a world of difference.
It is good to be well prepared and these videos are designed to help with that but nobody is going to expect you to be Perry Mason. - You are not an advocate and nobody expects you to be.
What you need is:
- Some knowledge
- Some structure
- Some basic skills on how to present your case.
As long as you have that, the court will understand if you fail to articulate yourself well.
The key advantage you have over an advocate is that you're acting on your own behalf. This allows you to demonstrate your sincerity & that is a key skill in the Magistrates' court.
Watch the remainder of the videos and we'll get you going. If you’re still unhappy about representing yourself, contact us via our website (www.oblaw.co.uk) .
Video 2 – Magistrates’ Court Procedure
Entering your plea part 1
I’m Rod Hayler of Old Bailey Solicitors and this is the second in a series of videos to help people representing themselves in the Magistrates’ Court.
As I explained in the first video, there are three types of offences: summary only (the least serious), indictable only (the most serious) and either way offences (which fall in the middle).
If you are charged with a summary only or either way offence then the court will want to know whether you are pleading guilty or not at the first hearing.
First of all - how do you know which type of offence you are charged with?
Take a look at your charge or postal requisition papers and then - on the internet - check out the Crown Prosecution Service website (www.cps.gov.uk). This lists all the common offences, what the prosecution need to prove, the maximum sentence and in some cases there will be sentencing guidelines.
It may be that you face a number of offences and some of them are summary only whilst the others are either way. This is common with driving offences for example. You may be charged with dangerous driving, which is either way and can be dealt with in the crown court, as well as DWD, driving with no insurance or with excess alcohol - all of which are summary only.
Where this happens, the most serious or lead offence dictates the venue. The either way offence can go to the crown court and the summary-only matters will follow it.
You now need to know the procedure for the first hearing so that you can begin to prepare.
For summary only matters, the court will ask how you plead to each of the charges you face. If you plead not guilty there will have to be a trial and the court will want to make directions so that the case is prepared properly. I will deal with this in one of the later videos.
If you plead guilty then the court will want to sentence you. That may be possible on the day - either because no report is required from probation or because the probation officer can provide a fast delivery report after a brief interview with you. Of course - you will want to be prepared for this and again I shall deal with sentencing in a separate video. If the case requires a fuller report from probation then your case may be adjourned for three or four weeks so that it can be completed. You will need to return to court and present your plea in mitigation then.
In the next video we’ll look at entering a plea to “either way” offences.
Remember to get in touch if you feel you need assistance.
Video 3 – Entering a plea
Entering your plea part 2
I’m Rod Hayler of Old Bailey Solicitors and this is the third in a series of videos to help people representing themselves in the Magistrates’ Court.
In this video we're going to talk about entering your plea to either way offences. Before we do, let's re-cap for a moment.
There are broadly 3 types of offences:
- Those that can only be tried in the magistrates' court - summary only
- Those that can only be tried in the crown court - indictable only
- And those that can be tried in either court – which are known as either way offences.
For either-way offences, the process is a little different from summary-only matters. Your first hearing will be an "allocation hearing"
The clerk will ask you whether you intend to:
- Enter a guilty plea
- indicate a "not guilty" plea
- decline to indicate a plea at this stage
If you enter a guilty plea then the magistrates will sentence you as they would for a summary only offence - unless they feel their powers of sentence are insufficient. For example, Importing drugs is an either way offence - but rarely would the magistrates ever have sufficient sentencing power. In these circumstances they can send your case for sentence to the crown court.
If you indicate a not guilty plea - or decline to indicate a plea - the court will need to decide whether to try your case in the magistrates court or send it to the crown court. Both prosecution and defence can make representations about this. If the magistrates accept jurisdiction of the case you still have the option to elect a trial by jury, in the Crown Court, and you will be asked where you would like the case heard.
To be frank, if you are entering a not guilty plea - and certainly if the case is likely to go to the crown court - you should seek the advice of a solicitor.
So what plea should you enter?
That will depend entirely on the circumstances of your particular case, the evidence you face and what you say in response to the charge. If you are in any doubt as to the appropriate plea - get some advice - either from the duty solicitor at court or by finding a lawyer yourself.
Again - take a look at the Crown Prosecution Service website. Look at what the prosecution need to prove and consider what you did, or didn’t do, in the light of that. This will help you decide on the plea you wish to enter and the likely penalty if convicted. It is true that the courts give credit for a guilty plea - that is to say they reduce the penalty - they do this because it saves time and resources, it means witnesses don't have to come to court and it demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility. However, you should only plead guilty if you ARE guilty. You should not do so simply to get the case over with or to seek a lighter sentence.
In later videos I will show you how to approach certain types of cases and how to develop a plea in mitigation.
Feel free to make contact if you need further help.
Video 4 – Dealing with sentence, part 1
A Basic Plea in Mitigation – Part 1
I’m Rod Hayler of Old Bailey Solicitors. In this video I’m going to discuss how to make a basic plea in mitigation, which would follow a guilty plea or a conviction after trial.
If you plan to enter a guilty plea to either a summary-only offence or an either-way offence then the court will expect you to enter that plea on the first occasion. What happens then depends on the circumstances:
The court will either:
- Sentence immediately, either without a report or with a report prepared on the day.
- Adjourn for sentence so that a full pre-sentence report can be prepared. Or
- Send the case to the crown court for sentence if the Magistrates’ powers of sentence are insufficient.
This video is designed to help you with a plea in mitigation. Now, it’s unlikely that you will deliver it as well as an experienced advocate but you shouldn’t worry too much about that. The court won’t expect you to be a brilliant orator and will give you some allowance for that. However, it helps to have:
- Good structure; and
- Good content
There is no reason why you cannot do this with a little help and remember that you have one advantage over any advocate: you are saying this on your own behalf and you have an opportunity to impress the court with your sincerity.
Firstly, don't forget that you've done a bad thing - you are pleading guilty to, and accepting responsibility for committing a crime. This is your opportunity to admit what you have done wrong and to make an apology to all concerned. You would be surprised how effective a heartfelt apology can be.
It’s helpful to understand the process the court has to go through when sentencing someone. Once you understand their structure you can build your own along similar lines. This is the general order that the court will follow when considering sentence:
- Find out what the maximum sentence is.
- See if there is a sentencing guideline issued by the sentencing counsel.
- Assess the culpability of the offender.
- Assess the harm caused by the offence.
- Work out what category the case should be in and note the range of sentence available.
- Consider any aggravating or mitigating features in the guideline.
- Adjust the starting point for this particular offence.
- Take account of any personal mitigation.
- Apply the appropriate discount for any guilty plea.
Now - a word or two about guidelines. The Sentencing Counsel has issued guidance for many offences but not all. If you go to their website (www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk) you will find guidelines for Assaults, thefts, burglaries, sexual offending, frauds and others. If there is no guideline then go back to the Crown Prosecution Website (www.cps.gov.uk) which can be very helpful.
The court will not expect you to conduct argument about which category a case should be in but it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the likely starting point. Let’s take the assault guideline by way of example.
In the harm section, regard will be had to the level of injury caused or the vulnerability of the victim. In the culpability category the court will take account of a significant degree of premeditation or whether a weapon was used.
A lack of previous offending would mitigate the position whilst a record of relevant or similar convictions would aggravate it.
In part two of this plea in mitigation video I will show you some useful things to include and I will talk about structure. So – see you in the next video and if you’re still unhappy about representing yourself, please get in touch (www.oblaw.co.uk)
Video 5 – Dealing with sentence, part 2
A Basic Plea in Mitigation – Part 2
In the last video I suggested that you go to the Sentencing Council website (www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk) to find the appropriate guideline or, failing that, to try the Crown Prosecution Website (www.cps.gov.uk).
With this information you should be fairly well informed before you get to court but you can see immediately that the court has a technical job in sentence. You must understand that but you want to develop a plea in mitigation - the purpose of which is to present your position in a favourable light. This is NOT the same thing as trying to evade responsibility for what you've done.
Probably the best thing you can do when mitigating on your own behalf is to begin with an apology. A genuine apology can be really disarming, for example:
"I'm really embarrassed to be here. I've felt bad ever since it happened and I just want to say sorry. Nothing like this has happened to me before and I want to do the right thing."
If you can start in a positive fashion you will engage the court and get them onside. Unless there is some disagreement with the prosecutor about the sentencing category there's no need to mention that side of it at all. The prosecutor has a duty to assist the court with the appropriate guideline - you can focus elsewhere.
Having made your apology, set out in a few words why the incident came about. If you have done something out of the ordinary, the chances are that a particular set of circumstances might have led to it. Examples might include:
- Pressures at home
- Financial worries
- The responsibility of looking after others
- Or, Some other traumatic event
These are not necessarily excuses but they do place your offending in context. Not only that, courts are often persuaded by these examples and all advocacy, whether done by a professional or by defendants in person, is about persuading people.
I would then move on to briefly explain why it will not happen again. What has changed? Have you sought counselling? Have you stopped drinking or found employment? There may be any number of positive changes that you have made to your life to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again - make a short list and be ready with them.
You may also wish to tell the court what your plans are. Tell the court of any support you have and of your future prospects. Perhaps you are about to start a college course or a new job. If you have placed these things in jeopardy through your actions, don't be afraid to mention it. The court has a duty to sentence you appropriately but will understand if you have already suffered as a result of your behaviour.
Finally - if you have any character references, get a few copies and hand them in. It is polite to have spares for the prosecutor. References can give a more rounded view of your character and you would be as well to hand them in before you start. It can help get the court onside before you even stand up.
It's really not as difficult as it seems and again, don’t worry about delivering a flawless performance. What matters is that you should be well prepared and sincere in your apology.
In the final video of this series I will look at particular problems in sentencing and how to anticipate them. If you need specific help, feel free to get in touch.
Video 6 – What to watch out for in Sentencing
Potential pitfalls in sentence
Hello, I’m Rod Hayler of Old Bailey Solicitors and in the final video of this series we’re going to look at potential pitfalls in sentence.
The first category involves what we call a basis of plea. Sometimes a defendant acknowledges that they have committed an offence and wishes to plead guilty but still disagrees with the prosecution about precisely what happened.
Let’s take the example of a simple assault. The victim says that you punched him three times to the head and you say that there was just a single blow. Now, whether that is a significant difference with depend on the circumstances of the case but some are far starker.
For a more extreme example, let’s say that the victim claims you kicked them on the ground twice and you maintain is was a single punch with no kicks. You may still enter a guilty plea provided you accept what you did was an assault but there will remain quite a difference between the two sides as to what happened.
One of the responsibilities of the court is to ensure that you are sentenced on a correct basis. Where the difference between the two sides is not so great then the court may proceed to sentence on your version. However, if the court feels that the difference between the two sides is so significant that it would make a material difference to the sentence passed, then the court must resolve the dispute.
If this happens the court may require what we call a trial of issue otherwise known as a Newton hearing. This is similar to a normal trial and may involve both sides giving evidence. It is time consuming, requires the attendance of witnesses and, if you lose, can lead to a loss of credit for the guilty plea you have entered.
This is not to say that you should accept an account of the crime with which you do not agree but it is important that you understand the potential consequences of asserting an alternative basis for that plea. You would be well advised in these circumstances to take professional advice.
The second category of pitfalls in sentence involves ancillary orders. In addition to general powers of sentence, the court can impose other orders for certain offences. These include
- Disqualification from driving
- Restraining orders for violent or harassment offences.
- Sexual Harm Prevention Orders for certain sexual offences.
- Forfeiture and destruction orders.
- Football Banning Orders.
- Criminal Behaviour Orders.
If you speak to the prosecutor before sentence you may find out whether they plan to apply for such an order. Either way, it is as well to research the offence with which you have been charged to see whether the court has the power to impose one of these orders. These orders are not automatic and you may be able to argue against one being imposed.
If in doubt – get some legal advice, either from the duty solicitor at court or by finding the solicitor you want.
Good luck with your case and please get in touch if you need help.