The Crown Court is part of the Supreme Court of Judicature and deals with the most serious of criminal offences. This article will detail some important facts regarding the Crown Court, examining its origins and exploring the reasons for its introduction. Next will be a detailed account of the procedures involved within the Crown Court, such as who the judge is and what role the judge has regarding the trial. Others areas considered will be how evidence is presented, and sentencing that may be imposed on a person who has been found guilty of an offence. The Crown Court is not only a mechanism for dealing with offenders. It is also a place that can offer closure to concerned victims when justice is administered. For this reason, it is important to discuss the procedures involved for victims. Finally, the article will explore future proposals for the Crown Court, and the criminal justice system as a whole.
The Crown Court was created by the 1971 Courts Act which abolished the ineffective system that was in place at the time, which involved numerous local Assize courts throughout the country. This system could not cope with the number of criminal offences. The Assizes were periodic local courts heard before judges of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, who traveled across the seven circuits into which England and Wales were divided, assembling juries in the Assize Towns and hearing cases, and, therefore, a more robust system needed to be introduced. Nevertheless, the Court of Assize was created by Henry II in the 12th century, introducing the first trial by jury. Although it bares little resemblance to the jury system today, it was the first time that guilt or innocence of the accused was not decided by divine intervention, as was the case with trial by ordeal.
The system was first piloted in both Liverpool and Manchester in 1956, and was employed nation wide in1972. There are ninety Crown Courts in England and Wales, with the most well known of these being the Old Bailey in London, which sits at the pinnacle of the Crown Court system. The Crown Court provides an environment that enables decisions to be made solely on the evidence provided.
Procedure in the Crown Court
The time it take for a case to be heard at the Crown Court can be between three and six months. It can, however, in certain case, take even longer. It is not unusual for a defendant to meet their barrister on the first day of their trial. This situation has led to some suggesting that justice maybe being sacrificed for judicial expediency.
Any case that is sent from the Magistrates Courts, to the Crown Court, will be presided over by a trial judge. The rank that a trial judge will hold can be determined by the colour of their robes, with more senior judges wearing red robes. The judge will supervise the trial from a raised platform at the front of the court room (known as the bench), and will determine what may, or may not be adduced into evidence. In front of the judge will be his clerk, who will face the usher of the court. The usher is charged for moving evidence around the court and also bringing witness’ into the court.
The procedure for a judge entering a court consists of a statement being made by the clerk ‘all rise’ followed by everyone in the court standing until the judge is seated. This practice entails a showing of respect by people within the court for the judge.
Once the judge is seated, the trail will begin. The prosecution will go first in all cases. This will then allow the judge to assess whether a strong enough case has been presented for the trial to proceed. It is not unusual for the defence not to offer any submissions, as the judge can make the decision that there is no case to answer. If, however, there is a case to answer, then the defence will then offer its submissions to the jury. The advocates for the prosecution must prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the person charged with the offence, did indeed commit that offence.
Once all submissions have been made by both barristers, the jury will then retire to consider its verdict, which translates to ‘speak the truth’. They will be asked to return either a guilty, or a not guilty verdict. The ramifications for a defendant who enters a not guilty plea, and is then found guilty by a jury, can be severe. This is so as the judge will examine the consequences of the initial plea. For instance:
‘if a person enters a not guilty plea, and is found guilty, regardless of whether or not he is guilty, the judge will take into consideration the cost of the trial to the taxpayer, the fact that no remorse has been shown by the accused, and wasting the courts time. This can lead to an increased prison sentence. Conversely, an innocent person may decide that even though he has not committed the alleged crime that he is accused of, the evidence as it stands implicates him. He may, therefore wish to enter a guilty plea and ask the court to take into consideration the factors that are mentioned above, albeit in a positive manner.’
Although this may sound a little strange, it is a consequence of due process, and is in existence throughout most societies throughout the western world.
Victims of Crime
The Crown Court can offer closure to victims of crime. The equitable maxim that’ justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done’, is most apparent in criminal proceedings. Punishment of defendants by way of incarceration can offer victims retribution. Although this can never be enough for an individual who has maybe lost a loved one at the hands of another citizen, the fact that the victim has had their justice, can be enough to enable people to rebuild their lives. There is also a victims charter that was introduced in1996, although this has since been reviewed since the death of Stephen Lawrence to take into account of racist crime.
Possibilities for the Future
The Crown Court has, like most other institutions within the Criminal Justice System, been subjected to severe scrutiny. The Review of the Criminal Courts of England and Wales has suggested that a new unified criminal court should be formed, whereby the Crown Court would be renamed as the Crown Division, dealing only with indictable offences and serious either-way offences. There is also more radical proposal to replace the present jury system with a bench of three judges. This later proposal, has, however, been met with rejection in some quarters. A trial by jury is seen by some as underpinning the very foundations of a democratic society, something that maybe sacrificed for judicial expediency. Others, however, have suggested that asking a jury to understand complex rules of criminal law can lead to a miscarriage of justice, on either side.
The purpose of this article is to offer a brief insight into the Crown Court. To understand any system, one must first a certain level of knowledge regarding the origins of that system. What has been shown is that the Crown Court, although it deals with criminal defendants, can offer comfort for victims of crime. It can, however, also be a harrowing experience for anybody, especially those wrongly accused of a crime. What the future will hold for the Crown Court, and indeed all the criminal courts in England and Wales, is uncertain at this moment in time.