Crown Court Trials in England and Wales Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Crown Court Trials in England and Wales

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It is your charge, having heard the evidence, to decide whether he is guilty or not.

The words spoken to every jury when they sit on a trial. You may think you are familiar with trials from watching TV and from chalk drawings of courtrooms and defendants on the Six O'clock News1, but be wary. What is shown on the screen is necessarily a dramatised version and may not reflect the way things work in real life. This Entry will explain how a typical trial progresses.

The Crown Court

The Crown Court is the level of English and Welsh court in which more serious criminal cases are heard2. These may include serious assaults, robberies and sexual offences. Crown Courts are presided over by a judge, or sometimes by an experienced lawyer sitting in judgement as a recorder, who is, in effect, a part-time judge.


A trial takes place once a defendant or defendants has pleaded not guilty. They can be very quick – some take less than a day – or can last months on end, depending on the offence, number of defendants and amount of evidence. Most take less than a week.

Jury Selection

The case begins with the selection of the jury. A jury is made up of 12 members of the public called to do their civic duty and sit on a jury for a minimum of two weeks. Most cases are shorter than this, so each juror may sit on more than one case during their period of service. If the case is due to last longer, jurors will have to sit for the length of the case – efforts are usually made to find jurors for whom this will not present any particular problems.

For more information about serving on a jury and the role of the jury in the trial, as well as explanations of who is who in the courtroom, the reader is directed to the Entry 'Serving on a Jury in England and Wales'. This Entry will merely summarise their involvement.

Once the 12 jurors have been selected by random ballot, they each swear to come to a decision which is faithful to the evidence. They take either a religious oath3 on the holy book of their choice, or a non-religious affirmation. The defendant is entitled to object to the presence of a particular juror if he or she has good reason to do so. This is rare but if an objection is made it will be considered by the judge.

The jury are told the charges and are formally 'put in charge' which means they must make the decision as to guilt or innocence. The judge or recorder then gives the jury some warnings. This covers matters such as not discussing the case with people outside their number and not attempting to do their own research. These are to ensure a fair trial. For example, it is very important that jurors do not discuss the case with other people, even their own family, because those people have not heard the evidence and neither the prosecution or defence know what they have said, so they cannot address it. Their opinions and comments can have a subconscious effect on the thinking of the juror.

Jurors do not have to make notes on the case as the judge will summarise the evidence to them at the end of the case, but they may make notes if they wish. These remain confidential throughout and are securely destroyed at the end of the case. They will most likely be given copies of various pieces of documentary evidence, such as maps or photographs. Jurors may also make notes or marks on these if they wish to, which also remain confidential.

The Prosecution Case

The prosecution is the side accusing the defendant of committing the crime. Most of the time this will be the Crown Prosecution Service, on behalf of the Crown.

After the judge's warnings, the next stage is for the prosecuting lawyer to give an opening speech. This will explain the allegation and sequence of events. The prosecution case is first, when they call witnesses and present their version of events. Following the opening speech, in most cases witnesses are called to give evidence. Each witness will be asked questions firstly by the prosecutor; this is called 'Evidence In Chief'. Then the defence lawyer can ask questions of the witness, which is called 'Cross Examination'. At the end of this stage, the prosecutor may ask further questions as 'Re-examination'. This is intended to be questions arising from the witness' answers to the defence's questions. The judge may ask questions at any time.

There are several forms evidence can take. One, as we have seen, is evidence directly from witnesses, in person in the courtroom. There are several other forms, such as agreed statements. When witnesses are spoken to by the Police they explain what happened and the Police turn this into a written statement which is read and signed by the witness. Sometimes there is nothing contentious in these statements and both sides agree that the witness' statement can simply be read out loud to the jury rather than requiring the witness to attend, as neither side has any questions they want to ask. In cases of a serious sexual nature, it is common for the Police to film and record an interview with the alleged victim; the DVD of this is then often used as their evidence in chief. This is very common and when this takes place, it is usual for the witness to be cross-examined over a live video link. They will be sitting in another room, not in the courtroom, and will be shown on a screen in the court. The lawyers ask questions via this link.

Some witnesses give their evidence from behind a screen. This will be placed to allow the judge, jurors and lawyers to see them, but to block the view of defendant and anyone in the public gallery4. This is to allow the witness to give their best evidence.

Another form of evidence is Agreed Facts. This takes the form of a written document of matters agreed between the prosecution and defence and can include all sorts of information. These may include factual information such as dates and times of the defendant's arrest and interview. These are read out loud5 and copies passed to the jury.

Visual evidence may be shown such as CCTV and documentation such as bank statements, maps or mobile phone records are often used. The defendant's interview with the Police is usually produced in transcript form and is read out with a copy being given to the jurors.

When they have presented all of the evidence they wish to put forward, the prosecutor closes their case.

The Defence Case

The defence then begin their case. They may call the defendant to give evidence, but do not have to. They may also call defence witnesses and present other information in the same way as the prosecution can.

Closing Speeches and Summing Up

Once all of the evidence has been heard, both lawyers make a closing speech summarising their main points to the jury. The prosecution go first. Then the judge recaps all of the evidence which has been heard and explains the law the jury will need to make their decision. This may include matters such as the legal definition of the offence. This has usually been agreed with the lawyers in the absence of the jury and prior to the speeches.

The Jury Retires

The Court Clerk will now swear the Jury Bailiffs. These will be two court ushers who will swear to take the jury to a private place and allow no-one to talk to them, nor to talk to the jury themselves, except to ask them if they have come to a verdict. The Jury Bailiffs then take the jury to the jury room where they must consider their verdict or verdicts. During their decision-making, the jury are asked to select a Foreman or Forewoman6. This person may also chair the discussion but how the jury organise their discussions is up to them. If there are multiple defendants and/or multiple charges, the jury must consider each charge and each defendant separately and come to a decision on each. Once they are all agreed, they write a note to the judge that they have reached a verdict. This is then taken to the judge who will ask the jury to return to court.

On their return to court the Court Clerk asks the Foreman to stand. He is then asked if the jury has reached a verdict on which they are all agreed. If they have, the Foreman is then asked, count by count, for the verdict decided upon by the jury.

A jury must always strive to reach a unanimous verdict. In the event that the jury cannot agree, the judge will eventually call them back to court and give them a 'Majority Direction'7. This means that the court will now accept a verdict as long as at least ten jurors agree. The jurors then continue their deliberations. If they still cannot reach a decision, the judge will eventually call them back into court and ask them if they think there is any prospect of a verdict. If the Foreman says no, the jury will be dismissed and that is the end of the case. This is called a 'hung jury'. The prosecution must then decide if they want to try the defendant again.

If the jury find the defendant not guilty on all charges, he is free to go. If they find him guilty of at least one charge, he must be sentenced. Sometimes the judge is in a position to sentence immediately following the verdict, in which case the jury may be allowed, at the discretion of the judge, to remain to see the conclusion of the case. More often the case is adjourned for sentence. When this happens it is usually because the Probation Service need to prepare a report into the defendant to provide more information about the defendant's background and criminal attitudes. This provides the judge with more information on which to sentence.

No two trials are precisely the same but this Entry gives a reasonable overview of the process of a typical trial.

1It's illegal to film or take pictures in a courtroom.2The majority of criminal cases are heard in Magistrates' Courts which deal with less serious offences.3Oaths vary slightly in their wording depending on the religion they are used for. For example, Christians swear 'by almighty God' while Muslims swear 'by Allah'.4Almost all Crown Court hearings are open to members of the public to watch.5All proceedings are recording for posterity and so it is important that all evidence can be heard.6This entry will use 'Foreman' for simplicity, but this person can be of either sex and can be any member of the jury.7This direction cannot be given until the jury have been considering their verdict for at least two hours and ten minutes. If the case is simple, the direction will probably be given shortly after that, but for a complex case the jury would be given much longer.

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