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What Is Criminal Law?

Criminal law is the body of law that regulates how crimes are investigated and punished. Criminal law covers all kinds of crimes, from minor road traffic offences to white-collar crime and fraud, to serious crimes such as murder.

There are several ways that crimes are classified. For instance, one way is on the basis of who or what is perceived as a the victim of the crime.

  • Crimes against society, such as traffic offences and drug possession;
  • Crimes against a person, or victim-based crime, such as physical and sexual assault, manslaughter, and murder;
  • Crimes against justice, such as perjury.

Another way to classify crime is based on the seriousness of the offence, and the way it’s dealt with. All criminal cases are heard first in a Magistrates Court, but depending on the seriousness of the crime, it may be dealt with in the Magistrates Court or may be escalated to a higher court.

  • Summary offences such as traffic offences and nuisance offences are resolved in the Magistrates Court.
  • More serious offences such as burglary, theft, and serious assault may or may not be dealt with in the Magistrates Court. These are “either way” offences, as they can be tried in either the Magistrates or the Crown Court. Each case is decided on its own merits according to the nature of the crime.
  • Indictable-only offences are crimes such as rape and murder, which are serious enough that they will not be decided in the Magistrates Court, but will automatically be directed to a Crown Court after the initial hearing.

If you’re accused of a crime and the case goes to trial, you may be represented by a barrister as well as a solicitor. This may occur if your solicitor feels that the nature of the case is complex or serious enough that a courtroom specialist—a barrister—is needed to adequately defend you in court.

Criminal Law Procedures

Criminal law is distinct from other legal cases in that criminal law cases are initiated by police on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service, rather than by members of the public.

The magistrates court

When someone is charged with a crime, they are held until their initial hearing takes place in a magistrates court. If they plead guilty to a summary crime, they may be sentenced immediately by the magistrate, or the magistrate might order a pre-sentence report. In the latter case sentencing will occur in the magistrates court at a later date.

In the magistrates court, the maximum sentence that can be given is up to 6 months in prison, or up to 12 months if the defendant is sentenced for multiple crimes. The maximum amount someone can be fined is £5,000.

Since the magistrate’s sentencing powers are limited, the magistrates court does not have the ability to hand down sentences in serious or complicated cases. This means that if someone pleads guilty to a serious crime they might be sentenced at a later date in a crown court.

Alternatively, if someone pleads innocent, they then have the chance to present their case, either in the magistrates court or the crown court, depending on the crime they are charged with.

The trial process

When a case is tried—meaning that the defendant pleads not guilty—evidence is heard first from the prosecution, and then from the defence. Each side has the opportunity to build their case using evidence and witnesses, as well as to challenge evidence provided by the other side.

In criminal trial, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, who must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty of the crime.

Verdict and sentencing

Once all the evidence has been heard, each side sums up their case, and the verdict is then decided by a magistrate, judge, or jury, depending on where the case is heard and the type of crime involved. If a not guilty verdict is given, the defendant is free to go. If the defendant is found guilty, the magistrate or judge must then decide on a sentence, and depending on the crime may do so after the verdict is read or may decide that sentencing will happen at a later date.


Anyone convicted of a crime can appeal their sentence or conviction, whether they pleaded guilty or not guilty. The appeal process must be started within 28 days of conviction or sentencing, and must start with an application for permission to appeal. This means a judge looks at the case and the application and decides whether there are grounds for an appeal.

If permission to appeal is granted, the defendant and their legal representative attends a hearing to present their case. Winning an appeal means that a sentence may be reduced, or a conviction may be overturned, depending on the nature of the appeal.
If permission to appeal is not granted, the defendant can renew their appeal application and ask for a full court of judges to make the decision, which means two or three judges collectively decide whether to grant an appeal.

How can a Solicitor Help?

If you’re ever accused of a crime, it’s important to retain the services of a solicitor as soon as possible, even if you’re innocent, and even if the crime is a relatively insignificant one. Having legal representation helps to ensure that your legal rights are protected if you are questioned or arrested by the police. In criminal law, a solicitor has a wide range of responsibilities:

  • Provide legal advice at every stage of your case, including advice on what may happen with your case, and recommendations on what they think you should do;
  • Ensure your rights are protected if you are detained by the police;
  • If you are interviewed by the police, they will attend the interview and advise you throughout the process;
  • Discuss the evidence the police have and whether it justifies charging you with a crime;
  • If your case goes to court, they will give you advice and recommendations on making a plea, and what might happen depending on whether you plead innocent or guilty;
  • If you decide to plead innocent they will advise you on choosing a defence strategy;
  • Gather evidence to build your defence, including interviewing witnesses, looking for supporting evidence, and finding ways to challenge the evidence against you;
  • Depending on the nature of the case, either your solicitor will represent you in court, or they will arrange for a barrister to represent you;
  • If you are convicted of a crime and want to appeal, your solicitor can advise you throughout the process.