Magistrates' court (England and Wales)

In England and Wales, a magistrates' court is a lower court which holds trials for summary offences and preliminary hearings for more serious ones. Some civil matters are also decided here, notably family proceedings. In 2015, there were roughly 330 magistrates' courts in England and Wales,[1] though the government was considering closing up to 57 of these.[2] The jurisdiction of magistrates' courts and rules governing them are set out in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.

Almost all criminal proceedings start at a magistrates' court. Summary offences are smaller crimes (such as public order offences or most driving matters) that can be punished under the magistrates' courts limited sentencing powers – community sentences, fines, short custodial sentences. Indictable offences, on the other hand, are serious crimes (e.g. rape, murder); if it is found at the initial hearing of the magistrates' court that there is a case to answer, they are committed to the Crown Court, which has a much wider range of sentencing power. Either-way offences (such as theft) will ultimately fall into one of the previous categories depending on how serious the particular crime in question is (a minor theft will be dealt with in a magistrates' court; a serious theft will be dealt with in the Crown Court), although a defendant also has the right in such cases to elect for trial by jury in the Crown Court.

Cases are heard by a bench of three (or occasionally two) lay judges, or by a paid district judge; there is no jury at a magistrates' court.

Criminal cases are usually, although not exclusively, investigated by the police and then prosecuted at the court by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Defendants may hire a solicitor or barrister to represent them, often paid for by legal aid.

There are magistrates' courts in other common-law jurisdictions.