Get help now Make a donation

The courts and mental health

Explains what may happen if you're charged with committing a crime, what happens when you to go court, and how your mental health is taken into account.

What happens after I'm charged with an offence?

If you’re charged with an offence, you’ll usually have to go to court for a hearing. The police will send you a letter telling you where and when it will be. It’s very important that you attend your hearing. It’s against the law not to go.

For some minor offences, you may have the option of Single Justice Procedure. For example, this could be for speeding, evading a train fare or driving without insurance.

In this case, you’ll get a letter notifying you of a charge. You must respond to this within 21 days. You can plead guilty by post or online. Or you can ask for a court hearing.

If you don’t respond in time or request a hearing, the magistrate will assess your case on the information they already have.

What will happen at the court hearing?

Your first hearing will always be at the Magistrates' Court. Several things will happen at this hearing:

  • The magistrates will decide whether the case should be heard at the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court. They’ll consider the seriousness of the offence and whether you're ‘vulnerable’. For example due to your mental health.
  • If they decide to hear the case at the Magistrates’ Court, they’ll ask you whether you plead guilty or not guilty. If they decide to send the case to the Crown Court, they’ll ask what your plea will be when you get there.
  • The magistrates will decide whether you can leave on bail. Or whether you should be kept in prison on remand. You could be sent to hospital for an assessment of your mental health.

Which court will my case be heard in?

Which court your case is heard in depends on what type of offence it is:

  • Indictable-only offences include very serious offences. For example, rape, manslaughter and murder. They also include crimes such as bag-snatching and robbery, even for a small amount of money. Indictable-only offences will be heard in the Crown Court.
  • Summary-only offences include motor offences and minor assaults. They’ll be heard in the Magistrates' Court. In some cases, the Magistrates’ Court might send you to the Crown Court for sentencing after hearing your case. For example, if the Magistrates’ Court thinks you need to be sent to hospital with restrictions placed on you – the Crown Court can do this, but the Magistrates’ Court can’t.
  • Either-way offences include theft and handling stolen goods. They might be heard in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court. If your case is heard in the Magistrates’ Court, you could be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing. You can also choose to have an either-way offence heard in the Crown Court, if you wish. But you should speak to your solicitor about this.

What's the difference between the Magistrates' Court and the Crown Court?

These are the main differences between the two courts:

Magistrates' Court

  • Less formal, and generally quicker.
  • Your case will be heard by a panel of magistrates (usually two or three) or one judge. There’s no jury.
  • Has less sentencing powers than the Crown Court. Can give prison sentences, fines and section 37 hospital orders.

Crown Court

  • More formal than the Magistrates’ Court.
  • Your case will be heard by a judge and a jury.
  • Has more sentencing powers than the Magistrates’ Court. Can give longer prison sentences, larger fines and more restrictive hospital orders – for example, a section 37/41.

How can I care for my wellbeing?

Going through any legal process involving the courts can bring up difficult emotions. It can be very stressful for everyone involved.

Our pages on managing stress, caring for your wellbeing and managing anger have tips for looking after yourself and finding support.

If you’re in England, you can refer yourself to NHS England’s Liaison and Diversion (L&D) services. They support people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or substance misuse through the early stages of the criminal justice system.

You can also tell the usher at the court where your case is being heard that you’d like support from the L&D service. It’s your right to have access to this. But in some courts, the service might be difficult to access, or even unavailable.

If you’re struggling with your mental health during this process, mention this as soon as you can to the court or your lawyer. The court has a duty to make reasonable adjustments for anyone who is vulnerable.

This information was published in April 2024. We'll revise it in 2027.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

arrow_upwardBack to Top