The courts and mental health

Explains what may happen if you are 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 am charged with an offence?

If you are charged with an offence, you will have to go to court for what is called a 'hearing'. The police will send you a letter telling you where and when it will be. It is important that you attend your hearing – it is against the law not to go.

What will happen at the court hearing?

Your first time in court will always be at the Magistrates' Court. A number of things will happen at the hearing:

  • The magistrates will decide how the prosecution should continue. They will consider a number of things such as the seriousness of the offence and your mental health.
  • The magistrates will decide whether the case should be heard at the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court.
  • You will be asked to plead guilty or not guilty, or if the case is to be sent to the Crown Court, 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?

All cases start in the Magistrates' Court. At the first hearing, the magistrates will decide which court your case should be heard in: the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court.

Which court your case is heard in depends on what type of offence it is: an indictable offence, summary offence or either-way offence:

  • Indictable offences include very serious offences, like rape, manslaughter and murder. It also includes crimes such as bag-snatching and robbery of even a small amount of money. Indictable offences will be heard in the Crown Court.
  • Summary offences include motor offences and minor assaults. They will be heard in the Magistrates' Court. Sometimes the Magistrates' Court might send you to the Crown Court for sentencing after hearing your case.
  • Either-way offences include theft and handling stolen goods. They are heard in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court. You can have an either-way offence heard in the Crown Court if you want to, but you should speak to your solicitor about this.

The Magistrates' Court and Crown Court can give different sentences. Sometimes the Magistrates' Court might send you to the Crown Court for sentencing after hearing your case.

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

Here 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 and fines, and a section 37 hospital order.

Crown Court

  • More formal than 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.

This information was published in July 2018. We will revise it in 2020.

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

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