Definitions

Crown Court

Crown Court

For the TV programme see Crown Court (TV series).
The Crown Court of England and Wales is, together with the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal, one of the constituent parts of the Supreme Court of Judicature in England and Wales. It is the higher court of first instance in criminal cases; however, for some purposes the Crown Court is hierarchically subordinate to the High Court and its Divisional Courts. It sits in around 90 locations in England and Wales. Previously divided into six circuits - Midland, Northern, North Eastern, South Eastern, Wales & Chester and Western - it is now divided into seven regions - Midlands, North East, North West, South East, South West, London and Wales. The Wales region was added to enforce the new law creating powers formed by use of the Welsh Assembly Government The Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey), which was originally established by its own Act of Parliament, is now part of the Crown Court, and is one of the main criminal courts in London.

The Crown Court carries out four principal types of activity: appeals from decisions of magistrates; sentencing of defendants committed from magistrates’ courts, jury trials, and the sentencing of those who are convicted in the Crown Court, either after trial or on pleading guilty. On average defendants in custody face an average waiting time of 13 weeks and 3 days. Those on bail experience greater delay having to wait 15 weeks and 4 days.

Appeals from magistrates' courts

In 2003-4 the Crown Court heard 11,707 appeals against conviction and/or sentence from those convicted in the magistrates' courts. At the conclusion of the hearing the Crown Court has the power to confirm, reverse or vary any part of the decision under appeal . If the appeal is decided against the accused, the Crown Court has the power to impose any sentence which the magistrates could have imposed, including one which is harsher than the one originally imposed. There was a waiting time of just over 8 weeks for appeals; 90% of appellants waited 14 weeks or less.

Defendants committed from magistrates for sentencing

In 2003-4 the Crown Court dealt with 31,018 cases for sentencing from the magistrates. Magistrates have the power to commit to the Crown Court for sentencing when they are of the opinion that either the offence or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it was so serious that greater punishment should be inflicted than the court has power to impose or, in the case of a violent or sexual offence, that a custodial sentence longer than the court has power to impose is necessary to protect the public from serious harm. Committals may also arise from breaches of the terms of a Community Rehabilitation Order or a suspended sentence of imprisonment. There was an implied waiting time for sentencing of just over 7 weeks with 88% of defendants committed for sentence waiting no more than 10 weeks.

Trials

The Crown Court disposed of 83,247 committals for trial in 2003-4. Taking into account 29,752 cases still outstanding, the implied waiting time for trials was 18.5 weeks. This is the time between committal or lodging an appeal and the start of the Crown Court hearing. This level of delay has been gradually worsening over the last 6 years. The average time to try a case on a plea of not guilty is about 7 hours. Since the average length of a sitting day is 4.33 hours, this implies that a not guilty case takes just over the equivalent of one and a half court days.

Appeals from Crown Courts

When the Crown Court is dealing with a matter connected with a trial on indictment (i.e. a jury trial), appeal lies to the criminal division of the Court of Appeal and thence to the House of Lords. In all other cases, appeal from the Crown Court lies by way of case stated to a Divisional Court of the High Court.

Judges

The Judges who normally sit in the Crown Court are High Court Judges, Circuit Judges and Recorders. Circuit Judges also sit in the County Court. Recorders are Barristers or Solicitors in private practice, who sit part time as Judges. The most serious cases (treason, murder, rape etc.) are allocated to High Court Judges and Senior Circuit Judges. The remainder are dealt with by Circuit Judges and Recorders, although Recorders will normally handle less serious work than Circuit Judges. The allocation is conducted according to directions given by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

History of the Crown Court

The Crown Court was established in 1972 by the Courts Act 1971 to replace the courts of Assize and Quarter Sessions. The Crown Court is a permanent unitary court across England and Wales, whereas the Assizes were periodic local courts heard before judges of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, who travelled across the seven circuits into which England and Wales were divided, assembling juries in the Assize Towns and hearing cases. The Quarter Sessions were local courts assembled four times a year to dispose of criminal cases which were not serious enough to go before a High Court judge.

A Crown Court and a County Court may be located in the same building and use the same jurors. Since the establishment of Her Majesty's Courts Service in April 2005 there is an increased sharing of facilities between the Crown Court, county courts and magistrates court.

Physical layout

At the front of the court, on a raised platform, is a large bench. This is where the judge sits. His or her rank can be distinguished by the colour of gown worn, and different forms of address are appropriate for different ranks of judge, with "your honour" being the most common. The judge enters from a door at the side of the platform, preceded by a cry of "court rise" from the usher or clerk of the court who sits below and in front of the judge's bench. Everyone in the court is expected to show their respect for the judge by standing as he enters and until he sits down.

The clerk of the court, who sits facing the court (that is, the same way as the judge) has a smaller desk on which sits a telephone, used when communication is necessary with other parts of the court building (for example the jury assembly area or the cell complex).

Also in the area just in front of the judge's bench is the sound recordist. Proceedings will be recorded on a double deck cassette recorder with one tape or the other being changed at intervals. This record may be used if the case later goes to appeal.

Additionally there may be a court reporter who also records proceedings on a stenograph, by typing keys as the witnesses speak, using special shorthand. Alternatively, if there is no stenographer, a tapelogger or shorthand writer will be there to operate the tapes and ensure that a log of the proceedings is kept.

Facing the clerk will be the usher. If papers or other objects need to be passed around the court, for example notes from members of the jury, or evidence being shown to the jury, normally the usher will do this and will be the only person in the court to walk around while the court is in session.

Behind the usher, wearing black gowns and large white wigs and facing the judge, will be the prosecuting and defending barristers. The defending barrister will usually be nearest the jury. These days they will also be likely to have laptop computers in addition to files of papers relating to the case which will be on the desk in front of them. Unlike the judge who speaks sitting down, the barristers always stand to address the court.

Behind or alongside the barristers will sit the instructing solicitors, which in the case of the prosecution will either be a representative of the Crown Prosecution Service or police officers concerned with the case. The latter is more common with trials, whilst the former is more apparent in sentences, plea and case management hearings and other such cases.

At the back of the courtroom, behind the barristers, is a semi-partitioned area known as the "dock". This is where the defendant or defendants sit (now and then being asked to stand). A custody officer will be sitting in the dock near them.

Also at the back of the court, often adjacent to the dock, is a small area where the public can observe the proceedings. In some courts, notably the Old Bailey, this area is positioned above the defendant.

Taking of notes is usually forbidden in the public gallery. Members of the press must sit in the press bench, which is usually positioned alongside the prosecuting barrister. Ettiquette usually requires reporters to identify themselves to the usher before taking position here and starting to write.

Alongside the defending barrister is the jury box. This is where the jury watch the case from. They will be called to it from the jury waiting area (benches next to it) to be sworn in. Once sworn they always sit in the same seat throughout the trial. If proceedings (such as legal argument about the admissibility of evidence) take place which they are not supposed to see occur, the usher will escort them into a room just outside the courtroom (probably behind the dock). Only jurors and ushers ever enter this room.

Opposite the jury box is the witness box. Witnesses stand facing the jury and give their evidence so the jury can watch their demeanor while giving it, which might help them decide if the witness is being truthful.

When the judge sends the jury to consider their verdict, the usher escorts them to a small suite consisting of a large table, 12 chairs, WCs, paper and pencils, a button to call the usher with and prominent notices about not revealing deliberations to anyone else. The usher withdraws, and when the jury have arrived at a verdict, they push the button.

During deliberations only limited contact is permitted with the outside world, always via the usher. The jury will be permitted only (a) to call for refreshments, (b) to pass a note to the judge, perhaps asking for further guidance, or (c) to announce that they have reached a verdict. The judge may decide to recall them to the court to address them again at any time.

Circuits

Originally, the court was divided into six circuits as follows:

Circuit Area
North Eastern Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire
Northern Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, also north-west Derbyshire and northern Cheshire
Midland Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Northamptonshire, most of Derbyshire, part of Buckinghamshire, most of Oxfordshire, part of Berkshire
South Eastern Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, most of Buckinghamshire, part of Oxfordshire, most of Berkshire, Greater London, Surrey, Sussex, Kent
Wales and Chester Wales, and most of Cheshire
Western Gloucestershire, part of Berkshire, Bristol, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall

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