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Magistrates court trials

Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Trial

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Running a trial in the Magistrates Court

General principles

Who has to prove what?

The prosecution have to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.

Normally the prosecution have to prove the allegation against you beyond reasonable doubt. This means that they have to convince the court that you have committed the offence so that the court is 90%+ sure that you have committed the offence alleged.

What does the defendant have to prove?

The defendant doesn't normally have to prove anything - he or she simply has to cast a reasonable doubt - therefore 10%+ of a doubt that the prosecution have got it right!

When does the defendant have to prove things?

If the offence incorporates a statutory defence, for example failing to provide driver identity which you can defend if you show that you used reasonable dilligence to try and figure out who was driving at the time.  The defendant has to prove the statutory defence on the balance of probabilities.

What does the balance of probabilities mean?

If a defendant has to prove something they only ever have to prove it on the balance of probabilities. This means you must convince the court that it's more likely than not that your account is correct. You have to prove your account to the extent that the court is 51%+ sure that you are right. The defendant can never be required to prove his/her version of events beyond reasonable doubt.

Weird rules for documentary offences.

If you are accused of driving a vehicle without the appropriate documents (insurance/licence/mot etc) the prosecution simply have to prove that your drove a motor vehicle on a public road/place. The burden then passes to you to prove that you had the necessary document on the balance of probabilities. The logic is that it would be impossibly difficult for the prosecution to prove that you were not insured etc... they would have to approach every insurance company in the land to ask them if you were covered. It's easier to make you prove that you were insured rather than the prosecution having to prove that you weren't.

Can I get free advice from the duty solicitor?

Unless you are facing an imprisonable offence, which very few road traffic offences are, you won't get legal aid in order to defend yourself in relation to a road traffic allegation.

For the same reason the court duty solicitor is very unlikely to be willing to give you free legal advice in relation to your road traffic case. They are only paid for attending upon people who are at risk of imprisonment or are held in custody. If you do persuade the duty solicitor to give you some free advice before the trial you should bear in mind that they will be a general criminal lawyer and they are unlikely to have the expertise required to give you proper advice in relation to road traffic law.

The trial process 

Step One

When you receive the summons check the following;

  • That the offence alleged is actually an offence known to the law (therefore an offence described by one of the road traffic acts).
  • That the evidence of the main prosecution witnesses (police officers and civilian witnesses) is attached. In road traffic allegations this evidence doesnt have to be disclosed but the prosecution will often be willing to provide this primary disclosure to you to enable you to know what the allegation consists of...Beware though, some prosecutors will only provide you with a summary of the allegation against you before a not guilty plea has been entered. Why do they do this? Because the moment you enter a not guilty plea you start to lose credit. If you plead guilty at the earliest oppotunity then you get a lighter sentence for doing so. If you plead not guilty and then get found guilty or change your plea to guilty at a later stage you will get a harsher sentence. The prosecution will often want you to pin your sails to the mast before they go to the effort of providing primary disclosure...That's the beauty of summary justice in the magistrates court - it's supposed to be fast and cheap.
  • That the information for the summons was laid at the magistrates court within 6 months of the date of offence. That doesn't mean the paperwork was sent to you within that period or that the summons was printed within the six months. The summons should have an "information laid" date on it and this is the key date for working out whether or not it was issued with the requisite period. If in doubt, call the court and ask them to confirm the date. You can trust the response you get.

Step Two

Consider the evidence.

Do you accept that you have done what has been alleged? You can defend an allegation if you disagree with the facts alleged or if you have a statutory defence. For example, you can defend a speeding allegation by denying that you were speeding/the driver/on a public road etc etc. You might want to defend an allegation of failing to provide driver identity by using the argument that you used reasonable diligence to figure out who was driving, which is a statutory defence.

The balance and burden of proof.

Make sure you know what the prosecution have to prove and what you have to prove.

Most of the time the prosecution have to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt (so the magistrates are  roughly 90%+ sure that the prosecution is right). If this is the case you only have to cast a reasonable doubt to be found not guilty.

If you raise a statutory defence then you will have to prove your case on the balance of probabilities (so that the court is 51%+ sure that you are right) if the court is to find you not guilty.

Expert evidence.

Bear in mind that if you are going to challenge complex evidence you will probably need expert evidence to cast a doubt. We speak to lots of people who try and contest complex radar/laser evidence from speed detection devices simply on the basis that they don't agree with the reading....! You might be able to show that the officer didn't use the device properly, but if you can't then the magistrates are unlikely to find you not guilty unless you can show that the device wasn't working properly. You won't be able to cast a doubt by simply saying that you don't think you were going that fast!!

Plead not guilty

If you have made up your mind that you have a defence or that you don't agree with the prosecution version of events to the extent that you are not guilty you should indicate that plea to the court. Most of the time you will be allowed to plead not guilty by post and the court will notify you of the trial date when you will need to attend. Read the court papers (summons) carefully in this respect.

Pre-trial Review

If the allegation against you is complex and/or there are a number of witnesses who need to be called in order to give evidence, either in support of your defence or because you want to cross examine the evidence that they give on behalf of the prosecution the court may list the case for a pre-trial review.

If the case is straightforward the court won't necessarily list your case for a pre-trial review, they will simply accept your not guilty plea and adjourn the case straight to a trial date.

A pre-trial review is where the court lists your case for trial taking into account issues such as the following;

The number of witnesses to give evidence for the prosecution and defence and their availability to attend for trial and any dates to avoid.

The need for equipment in court - such as a tape player/dvd or video for the evidence to be viewed.

Any complex legal arguments that might be raised at trial.

The time estimate for the trial.

etc etc

The trial

Turn up with at least half an hour to spare before the trial is due to start. Bear in  mind that the court don't work around you, you have to work around the court. The court may have other cases listed for trial on the same day. The court determines the order of events. Be polite, patient and tolerant. If you get angry and impatient there is a good chance that the court clerk usher will communicate this back to the magistrates who will be deciding whether or not you are guilty of the offence. Therefore it is really important to create a good impresssion at all times. You don't have to suck up to everyone at court, but don't annoy everyone either. Accept that courts are a busy place and that you have to wait your turn and be patient. 

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