Trials in the Magistrates Court are governed by Part 24 of the Criminal Procedure Rules. The normal order of events is as follows:
- Opening speech by the prosecutor
- Prosecution witnesses called to give evidence. Each witness is examined in chief by the prosecution and then cross examined by the defence.
- At ‘half time’, there may be a submission of no case to answer.
- The defence witnesses will then be called to give evidence.
- The prosecution advocate may then make a closing speech where the defendant is represented or the defendant has introduced evidence other than his own.
- There is then a closing speech by the defence.
- The Magistrates consider their verdict and decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
- If the defendant is found guilty then the magistrates can either sentence the defendant immediately or adjourn sentence until a later date.
The opening speech by the prosecutor will set out what is required to be proven and then set out the evidence on which the prosecution will rely to prove the case.
After the opening, the prosecution will call the evidence that they rely on to prove the case. Such evidence will normally be sworn on oath, unless the witness is a child under the age of 14. Each prosecution witness will be questioned by the prosecution to elicit the evidence they need to prove the offence. Witness evidence may be ‘read’ to the Magistrates if it is agreed – in other words, if the defence do not disagree with anything being said by the witness. If the defendant gave an account in his interview, then a summary may be read to the magistrates.
During the presentation of their case, the prosecution make seek to adduce evidence that the defence solicitor thinks is inadmissible. This could lead to the Magistrates’ Holding a ‘voir dire’ hearing to determine the admissibility of a particular piece of evidence. A voir dire could involve witnesses giving evidence on matters related to the admissibility of evidence. The Magistrates will then need to decide whether the evidence is admissible or inadmissible.
‘Half time’ refers to the moment at which the prosecution evidence has been given and the defence is about to call their case. At this stage the defence may make an argument that the prosecution has failed to adduce sufficient evidence to prove the case against the defendant. If this argument is successful then the case effectively concludes with the defendant being acquitted.
A submission of no case to answer will be successful where:
- The prosecution has failed to put forward evidence of an essential element of their case; or
- Where the prosecution evidence has been so discredited as a result of cross examination that no reasonable tribunal could safely convict on the basis of it.
If that submission fails, or not argument is made, then the defence will proceed to put forward their case. A defendant is a competent witness but not compellable, meaning that they can give evidence on their own behalf but do not have to. If the defendant does not give evidence then the Court is entitled to draw an adverse inference against them as to their credibility under section 35 of the CJPOA 1994.
Once the defence case has concluded then both sides will give closing speeches. The defence will normally remind the Magistrates that the defendant is entitled to be acquitted unless they can be sure beyond reasonable doubt of the defendants’ guilt. The defence solicitor could also highlight every area in which the prosecution have failed to prove what they set out to. Closing speeches should be short and to the point. It is rarely helpful to make very lengthy speeches.
The Magistrates will then retire to consider a verdict.