An Overview of Crown Court

The Crown Court is a higher criminal court in England and Wales, which hears criminal cases and appeals from Magistrates’ courts. It currently hears tens of thousands of cases per year. Appeals of Crown Court decisions are made to the Court of Appeal.

The U.K. government created the Crown Court during the 1970s to take over the cases previously heard by the Courts of Assizes and the Courts of Quarter Sessions. According to the Judiciary of England and Wales, the Court’s jurisdiction includes “serious criminal cases.” All such cases begin in a lower-level Magistrate Court. Cases involving indictable (serious) offences are then sent to the Crown Court for trial. Some so-called “either way” offences can be tried in a Magistrate’s Court, but are sent to Crown Court if the defendant requests trial by jury. Defendants who are convicted of these offences in the Magistrate’s Court may then be sent to the Crown Court anyways, for sentencing. Finally, Crown Courts will hear appeals of decisions made in Magistrate’s Courts.

In addition, the Judiciary’s official website states that its 77 operating centres are divided into three “tiers,” which vary based on the seniority of the judges and the types of cases which they hear. “Third-tier” centres handle less serious offences and are usually presided over by visiting circuit judges. Second-tier centres are “visited by High Court Judges” who hear criminal trials. First-tier centres have High Court judges who will hear both criminal and civil cases. Criminal cases are also subdivided by level of seriousness: class one (murder and treason), class two (violent crimes like rape), and class three (“kidnapping, burglary, grievous bodily harm, and robbery”). Depending on the level of the centre and the severity of the case, a trial may be presided over by a regular circuit judge, a Recorder (a part-time judge who is usually a local lawyer with several years’ experience and hears several weeks worth of cases per year), or, in the most serious cases, a High Court judge (a High Court of Justice official who visits lower courts for brief periods to hear important cases).

This work makes the Crown Court one of England’s busier courts. In 2011, according to the annual report of the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Court received a total of 91,210 cases from Magistrate’s Courts, including both indictable and “either way” charges. An additional 42,981 cases were heard in lower courts but then committed for sentencing in Crown Court, and there were 13,359 appeals filed against decisions in lower courts. About two-thirds of defendants plead guilty in Crown court. A small majority (62 percent) of those who plead not guilty are acquitted.

The U.K. government is currently considering opening Crown Court hearings to TV cameras. The Daily Mail reports that, under the current plans, the first TV broadcasts would be limited to the sentencing hearings of major crime cases, but would expand from there. If Crown Court broadcasting proves effective, then the program would be expanded to include cases appealed upwards to the Court of Appeal and also to hearings before the Royal Courts of Justice.