General Advise (FAQs)

People often wonder what their basic rights are when they find themselves involved with the police and how their case will evolve through the criminal justice system.

For your assistance we have outlined some interesting facts relating to the criminal justice system.

This is not specific advice relating to your personal situation if you require advice then you should contact us as soon as possible on 020 8519 5500.

What happens when you are arrested?

When you are arrested

If they suspect you've been involved in a crime, the police have a right to arrest you wherever you are when they find you. It doesn't matter whether you're on the street, in your home or at work.

What the police must do

If the police intend to arrest you, they must:

  • identify themselves as the police
  • tell you that you are being arrested
  • tell you the suspected offence
  • tell you why it is necessary to arrest you
  • explain that you are not free to leave

The police can use reasonable force to arrest you if you resist or try to escape. You will probably be handcuffed and taken to a custody office in a police station.

Rights of Suspect in the Police Station

If you are arrested and taken to a police station or if you are arrested at a police station, the custody officer must, among other things;-

  • determine whether you are, or might be, in need of medical treatment
  • require an appropriate adult and/or an interpreter to help check documentation
  • make a formal risk assessment defining the categories of risk relevant to your custody and must make sure any response to any specific risk assessment, for example insuring a reduction in opportunities for self-harm. This risk assessment must be kept under review
  • Advise you of your rights whilst at the police station, these rights include :-
    • speak to a solicitor
    • have someone told that you are in custody and where you are
    • see the police codes of practice
    • have regular breaks for food
    • use the toilet

If you are under 17

If you are under 17, the police must find a guardian or parent to come to the station to help you.

That person will be present if the police interview you.

The police can in certain situations keep a suspect incommunicado (not allowing him/her to have contact with a lawyer or a family member) if you suspect this is the case then contact us immediately.

How long can you be held?

You cannot normally be held for more than 24 hours without being charged with a crime. However, for more serious offences, a police superintendent can extend that period to 36 hours. A court can extend it to 96 hours.

Once the police have completed their investigation and decided not to make any more enquiries, they will decide whether they have enough evidence to charge you with a crime.

If they do not have enough evidence, you will be released.

If the police decide they do have enough evidence, they may charge you with a crime. However, just because the police have enough evidence to charge you, doesn't mean you will be charged. You may be dealt with in some other way that doesn't involve going to court.

What happens if you are charged with a criminal offence and are sent to court?

If you're charged

If you're charged with a crime, it means the police are formally and legally accusing you of an offence. You will be given a charge sheet with the details of the crime.

Once you've been charged, you must have a hearing in a Magistrates' Court.

The police will decide, based on the charges against you and what they know about you, whether to release you on bail until that hearing or keep you in custody.

You will be released on bail unless the custody officer believes, for example that you:

  • have given a false name and address
  • won't come to your court hearing
  • will commit crimes while on bail
  • should be held for your own protection

You are unlikely to be released on bail if you are charged with a serious offence such as murder, or if you have previous convictions for serious crimes.

How do the courts work?

How the courts work

The way a court works depends on the kinds of cases it hears. Some courts have a judge and jury, while others have a panel of magistrates. Some courts are more formal than others. Knowing how a court works can help you prepare for your case.

Magistrates' Court

Dealing with less serious criminal cases and civil matters, the role of the Magistrates' Court includes:

  • determining whether a defendant is guilty or not, and passing the appropriate sentence
  • deciding on requests for remand in custody
  • deciding on applications for bail
  • sending serious cases to the Crown Court

Magistrates Courts do not use a jury but instead three magistrates sitting as a ‘bench'. They decide and pass judgement with help from a trained legal advisor, on whether someone accused of a crime is guilty.

Youth court

If the person accused of a crime is under 18, their case may be held in Youth Court. Youth courts are less formal than magistrates' courts, are more open and engage more with the young person appearing in court and their family. The judges in youth court do not wear robes, and the way cases are handled is designed not to intimidate children.

If the case is a serious one, though, it will be heard in Crown Court regardless of the age of the defendant.

Crown Court

These courts deal with more serious criminal cases, such as murder, rape or robbery. It also handles cases on appeal and those referred to them by Magistrates' Courts.

Trials are heard by a judge and a 12-person jury. Members of the public are selected for jury service.

Criminal trials usually take place in open court - which means that members of the press and public are allowed to hear and see what is happening. Once all the evidence has been presented, the jury decides if the person is guilty or innocent. The judge then decides the sentence, based on government-issued guidelines.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal of England and Wales hears cases in which lower courts have made decisions, but now those involved in the case disagree with what has been decided. They might also disagree with the way in which the decision was made.

The court is divided into criminal and civil sections. The head of the civil section of the court is the Master of the Rolls, while the head of the criminal section is the Lord Chief Justice.

The other permanent judges of the Court of Appeal are known as Lords Justices of Appeal.

The court hears appeals from the High Court. It also hears appeals of criminal cases that were decided in the Crown Court. In the appeals court, three judges, sitting as a panel, normally hear each case.

Going to court as a defendant

If you have been charged with a crime and have to appear in court, it is important you understand what will happen during the trial and what will happen if you do not turn up on the day your case is heard.

What happens at your first appearance?

Your first hearing

Before going to court for your first hearing you have to decide whether you will plead 'guilty' or 'not guilty'.

At your first appearance in court, you will normally be asked to enter your plea. If you plead guilty, then the court will pass sentence. If you plead 'not guilty' a date for the trial will be set.

You can ask for help from a duty solicitor, free of charge. This is often the easiest way to get advice on the day. They may also take your case on if it's relatively straightforward.

If your case is more serious and you cannot afford a lawyer, you can apply to the court for free legal aid. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau or the Legal Services Commission can help you.

What happens at your trial?

Your trial

Criminal cases

In a criminal trial, the prosecution lawyer presents the evidence against you. You or your solicitor will be able to challenge their evidence and present your defence against that evidence and the charges against you.

Before you give evidence to the court, you'll be asked to swear an oath on a holy book of your choice. If you prefer, you can choose to 'affirm' instead. An affirmation is a non-religious oath to tell the truth, and it is just as binding.

You may have to attend court several times, and it is important that you go to court every time your case is heard. If you need to leave court during the day of the trial, you must ask for permission in advance. It's unlikely that it will be granted.

Magistrates cases

In a Magistrates' Court, the magistrates or district judge will decide whether or not you are guilty of the charge based on the evidence presented.

The magistrates in your case will likely be three local people volunteering their time, and supported by a legally trained advisor. Your case could also be heard by just one magistrate, called a district judge, who is a lawyer.

Crown Court

In a Crown Court, a jury made up of 12 people who represent the general public considers the evidence and decides on the verdict.

When the jury has heard all the evidence they will leave the courtroom, go to a private room and discuss the case until they can all agree on whether they think you are guilty or not guilty.

If they cannot agree, the judge can allow a majority verdict if 10 out of the 12 jurors agree. Once they've come to a decision, they will return to court, and one member of the jury, known as the foreman, will tell the court the jury's decision. If you are found not guilty you are 'acquitted' and are free to leave. If you are found guilty, you will be sentenced to punishment by the judge.

What does sentencing mean?


If you are convicted (found guilty of the offence), you may be sentenced to prison, given a fine or given a sentence that is served in the community.

That decision could be taken when you plead or are found guilty, or you may have to come back to court for sentencing at a later date. In that case, you could be remanded back to prison until that date, or you could be released on bail. If your case has been heard in the Magistrates' Court, you may be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing.

The court will often order a report to help them decide what sentence is most suitable for you. This process can take up to three weeks and is carried out by a probation officer who will meet you to assess your needs. It is in your interests to work with the officer.

If you decide to appeal against your conviction or sentence, your solicitor can advise you about what happens next.

If you don't turn up to court

It is important that you turn up to court when your case is heard. If you think you will not be able to, tell your solicitor or the court as early as possible. Failing to turn up (without a court-approved reason) is a crime.

If you do not turn up for your case, then:

  • a warrant will be issued for your immediate arrest and you will be kept in custody to be brought back to the court
  • your case can be heard without you there, and you will not have a chance to defend yourself
  • you will be charged with the extra offence of ‘failing to appear' (the maximum penalty for this in Crown Court cases is 12 months' in prison even if you are not found guilty of the original charge against you)
  • a conviction for ‘failing to appear' will go on your criminal record and will influence any future decisions about whether you should be bailed
  • you may be remanded in jail until your trial

How sentences are worked out

A tougher sentence may be given if it's not an offender's first offence When magistrates or judges give sentences, they must take into account:

  • the type of crime and how serious it is
  • if the offender admits their guilt
  • the offender's criminal history
  • the offender's personal and financial circumstances
  • the law and sentencing guidelines

Magistrates and judges use guidelines when working out sentences. These guidelines, produced by an independent organisation, show what sort of sentences could be given for particular types of crime. The court decides how serious a crime is by looking at:

  • the harm it caused or could cause
  • why it happened, for example, was it planned

Different offenders may not be given the same sentence for the same type of crime, as magistrates and judges look at the circumstances of each case. A tougher sentence may be given if it's not an offender's first offence or a lighter sentence if the offender admits their guilt at an early stage.

What happens when an offender is sentenced

When an offender is sentenced, they can get one of four main types of sentence:

  • discharges
  • court fines
  • community sentences
  • prison sentences

There may also be other requirements for the offender known as court orders.


When the court decides someone is guilty, but decides not to punish them at this time, they will be given a ‘discharge'. Discharges are given for minor offences. A court may give a discharge if it decides the experience of going to court is enough of a punishment in itself.

There are two types of discharge:

  • an absolute discharge means that no more action will be taken
  • a conditional discharge means that the offender will not be punished unless they commit another offence within a set period of time

Court fines

Most sentences are for minor offences. The majority of these will get a court fine. Fines are given for offences like:

  • driving and road traffic offences, eg speeding or not having insurance
  • minor offences of theft or criminal damage
  • not having a TV licence

The fine amount depends on how serious a crime is and the offender's ability to pay. An offender may also have to pay compensation to the victim and an extra payment called the ‘victims' surcharge'.

Community sentences

Community sentences place ‘requirements' on the offender that they must meet in the community.

These can include unpaid work which benefits the community (called Community Payback) or getting treatment for alcohol or drug problems.

They can also include a curfew, where the offender has to stay indoors, usually at their home, for set times each day. If they don't meet these requirements, they can be given a more serious sentence and in some cases sent to prison.

Prison sentences

Prison sentences are given when an offence is so serious that only a prison sentence is a suitable form of punishment. A prison sentence will also be given when the court believes the public must be protected from the offender. In some instances prison sentences can be suspended.

Additional court orders

A court may add other requirements to a sentence connected with the offender's behaviour. For example, a court can add an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) to a community sentence. Other orders that can be added to a sentence include parenting orders, football banning orders or drinking banning orders.

When crimes don't go to court

Not all crimes go to court for sentencing. Some first-time offences and less serious crimes may be dealt with by the police or a local authority. These are called out-of-court disposals. In these cases a formal warning or a fixed penalty notice - where a fixed amount of money must be paid - may be given. Crimes that could be dealt with outside the court system include:

  • parking offences
  • travelling on public transport without a ticket
  • behaving badly in public

If an offender gets into further trouble or doesn't pay a fixed penalty notice they may then be dealt with by the court.

Young people and sentencing

Some sentences are different for young people aged 10 to 17 years old. To find out about these sentences see the ‘Young people and custody' and ‘Community sentences' links below.

Appealing against a sentence

If an offender disagrees with a sentence, they may consider appealing against it. It is a good idea to get advice from a lawyer before starting the process.

What support is there for prisoners and their families?

Support for prisoners and their families

If you or a family member have been convicted of a crime or are on probation, you might find that you need some help dealing with the prison and probation systems. A number of organisations provide support and assistance for people in your situation.

Prisoners' Families Helpline

Prisoners' Families Helpline (0808 808 2003) is overseen by the group Action for Prisoners' Families - a national charity that promotes fair treatment of prisoners' families by the prison system and society across the UK. It provides information and support to anyone with a relative or friend in prison in England and Wales, and to anyone who works with prisoners' families.

HM Prison Service

The official website of the prison system holds information about all aspects of prison life, both for those in prison and for their families and friends.

CJS (Criminal Justice System) Online

This website has useful information for anybody who is charged with or convicted of a crime. It includes a number of online videos that you can watch, including one that walks you through the court system. Another video walks you through prison induction. If you've been a victim of crime, it has information for you about where you can get help. It also has advice and information for those who have witnessed a crime.

Prison Reform Trust

The Prison Reform Trust can help if you feel there are serious problems with a particular prison. It can also help if you're concerned about how you or your family member or friend are being treated by the prison system. It cannot, however, help with cases of wrongful conviction.

Nacro (a crime reduction charity)

Nacro specialises in helping offenders after their release from prison. It has a resettlement helpline (020 7840 6464) that offers information about housing and work for ex-offenders, their families and friends.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman investigates complaints from prisoners, people on probation and immigration detainees held at immigration removal centres. It also investigates deaths of prisoners, residents of probation service hostels, and those held in immigration removal centres.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman
Ashley House
2 Monck Street
020 7035 2876

The above information has been provided by for further more in depth information regarding the criminal justice system then please contact us on 020 8519 5500

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