So you’ve been charged with a criminal offence and you are now due to appear before your local Magistrates Court.
Most people attend the Magistrates Court under their own steam. With only a few being remanded and brought before the court, usually only for serious offences or where there is risk to victims and witnesses or a history of not answering court or police bail.
If you’ve never been to the Magistrates or Youth Courts before it can be an overwhelmingly anxious in of its self, regardless of the offence which you are due in court for.
This is why it is likely that you will want to arrange for a Criminal Defence Solicitor if you have not already done so. If you had your own or a duty solicitor at the police then it would be normal for them to continue with the case in most circumstances, although it is your decision and if you weren’t ultimately happen with them you can instruct another firm.
It is important to use a firm who you trust as you will likely to be relying on them to support, advise and represent you at the Magistrates.
Legal aid is available for imprisonable offences (subject to your financial eligibility which is decided by means-tested forms). For non-imprisonable offences such as most driving offences you may have to pay privately to instruct the solicitor of your choice.
If you don’t have a solicitor yet there is also the duty solicitor who will be available to use on the day, but they may have many other cases and can’t run a trial for you.
If you aren’t eligible for legal aid and can’t afford to pay for a solicitor then you might represent yourself. However in certain cases such as domestic violence it would not be appropriate for your to cross- examine the victim or witnesses if the matter proceeds to trial. It is therefore likely that the court would instruct a local firm of solicitors to cross examine them on your behalf which wouldn’t cost you anything. They would only cross examine and not do the trial for you.
It is really recommended to instruct a solicitor prior to the hearing date. Particularly if you are working or self employed. Why? Because you may not necessarily be eligible for legal aid and the court is unlikely to allow for the first hearing to be adjourned to wait for a decision about legal aid. Secondly legal aid is not granted retrospectively, so if the legal aid is not submitted on the first opportunity, or it is ultimately refused, you could be in-line for a surprise bill.
There are vast differences in the experience, quality and the effectiveness of different firms and different solicitors within the firms. You need to have confidence in your appointed solicitor as they will be working on your behalf. If you instruct your solicitor prior to the hearing you will discover who will be acting for you and whether you think they will be any good! If you haven’t got a solicitor and/or are unsure about who to instruct then there are various sources to find out the best firms.
– Friends and family
If you know anyone who has been in trouble with the police or courts recently and ask them who they used and whether they could recommend anyone in particular.
– Law Society
The law society has a list of firms and the solicitors.
In Google and other Solicitors directories you will find a wealth of criminal defence solicitors in your area.
In others such as the GoodLawyerGuide they rate various solicitors based on various factors and client reviews.
Once you’ve found some criminal defence firms give them a ring and arrange for an appointment to see one. Most firms have appointments in the afternoons as the solicitors are usually at the Magistrates Courts in the mornings. Although the Solicitor will only be able to talk in generalities until they have had the opportunity at Court to obtain a copy of the advance information about the case from the Crown Prosecutor. Basically this is the evidence including witness statements. The Solicitor will also be able to explain to you some of the procedures at court and explain to you from start to finish how the hearing is likely to be played out.
On the day of court arrive in plenty of time and before the time on your bail sheet. Although most courts start slightly later than that time the court could essentially call the case on early and if you were not present you could be in breach of your bail and a warrant issued for your arrest.
Each court has a different layout and procedure but in most you need to sign in at reception to say you have arrived. Then find out which Court room that you are going to be in. There will be a person in the black gown. These people are the Court Ushers and each courtroom usually has one of its own. Identify yourself to this person so that they know you have arrived.
Most cases are not in pre-defined list with all of them usually listed for the same time. Once the Solicitors arrive to meet you, they will explain and take care of the rest.