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What is the difference between a Magistrates’ Court and a Crown Court?

Most criminal cases are heard in a magistrates' court. There are normally three magistrates in a case; these are usually people from the local community. Magistrates are sometimes called justices of the peace. Sometimes cases are tried by a single magistrate, called a district judge, who is a lawyer.

Magistrates' courts are not as formal as the Crown Court, the magistrates do not wear wigs and only the ushers (court officials who keep everything running smoothly) wear black gowns.
The following cases are heard at Crown Court:

  • Cases in relation to serious crimes.
  • Cases where the offender has requested that his case be tried by a jury.
  • Cases sent to the Crown Court by the magistrates' court (this can happen if the magistrates feel that a higher sentence should be given than they have the power to set).

Cases at Crown Court are tried by a jury, consisting of 12 people from the general public. A judge decides on matters of law during the trial, such as whether certain evidence is allowed to be presented, and also makes sure the trial proceeds in a fair way. The jury decides whether the offender is guilty or not guilty. If found guilty, the judge decides what penalty should be given.

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