Courts & the Law

Courts & the Law

Courts & the Law

What happens when a law is broken? There are many stages that a person needs to go through if it is believed they have broken the law. These stages involve the police, lawyers and the courts. This article tells you about how these processes work in England and Wales, but they are similar in many English-speaking countries.


When a crime has been committed, the police take a statement from the people who witnessed the crime. If the crime was committed against an individual, the police will also take a statement from this victim. If the crime is serious, the person who is thought to have broken the law is then arrested by the police. That person is taken to the police station and interviewed. He or she is allowed to have a solicitor (a type of lawyer) present during the interview. Solicitors know a lot about the law and help make sure the people they represent have a fair interview. For some less serious crimes, the police may summon the suspect to go to court rather than arresting them. However, if the suspect refuses to give his or her name and address to the police, or is considered to be dangerous, the police can arrest them.

By law, the police are allowed to hold and question people for up to a maximum of 96 hours. In general, the police cannot hold a suspect for more than 24 hours without charging him or her with a specific crime. This time can be extended by 12 hours by a senior police officer. If necessary, it can be extended again by a magistrate. If the police feel they have enough evidence they can charge the person with the criminal offence that has been committed. Charging a person means they are accused of the crime and must go to a court of law to defend their innocence or to be found guilty. If the police do not have enough evidence after questioning their suspect then they must let the person go free. Suspected terrorists are a different case and can be held for longer without being charged.

Courts & the Law
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The person charged with the crime must next appear briefly at a magistrates’ court. A magistrate is a kind of judge. The accused person will be asked for his or her name, address and date of birth. The charge is read out, describing what the person is accused of doing. The accused’s solicitor can then ask the magistrate for bail. Bail means the person can be released until trial. There may be conditions to this release—such as having to live in a certain place, or getting a friend of the accused person to promise that they will pay the court some money if the accused does not turn up for trial. The accused person may also be asked to stay away from the victim as a condition of bail.

The magistrate decides whether to give bail or to remand the person in custody. Remanding someone in custody means they are put into jail until their trial in court.


The next stage will be to go to court for trial. All kinds of preparations are made for this. The accused and his or her solicitor write down their version of the suspected crime, or of what the accused was doing at the time of the crime. Any witnesses to the crime are approached by the police and asked what they saw. The police record these versions of events. They then give this evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which decides if there is enough evidence to be able to find the accused person guilty in court.

The CPS will be responsible for prosecuting the accused in court. This means they will be trying to prove that person is guilty of the crime. The person accused of the crime is called the defendant because they will try to defend their innocence.


People who are charged with crimes classed as not serious (such as theft) are tried in a magistrates’ court. This kind of court does not have a jury. The magistrates alone decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. If the defendant pleads “not guilty” then the CPS sets out to prove, using the evidence gathered by the police, that they are guilty. Sometimes the defendant pleads guilty to the crime, in which case the magistrates can quickly decide what punishment to give the person. The decision of what punishment to give a guilty defendant is called sentencing. The magistrates decide on an appropriate sentence for the criminal.


Serious crimes, such as murder, are tried in a Crown Court. The Crown Court has a judge and a jury. The jury is made up of 12 members of the public who have been selected randomly from the local population. Once you reach 18 years of age, you could be called up to serve on a jury at any time.

The jury listens to the evidence for and against, given by the defendant’s solicitor and the CPS. Both sides can question witnesses in court in order to help their case. The judge then sums up all the evidence to the jury. The jury must decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. To do this the jurors go to a room and discuss the case in private. All of the members of the jury should agree on the decision. If they cannot all agree, the judge may allow them to make a decision where just eleven or ten of them agree. This decision is then read out to the judge in court. The decision, guilty or not guilty, is called the verdict. If the jury is unable to agree on a verdict then a new trial, with a new jury, may be called. In Scotland, a third verdict of “not proven” can also be reached.

Courts & the Law
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If the defendant is found guilty he or she then becomes a convicted criminal. The judge must now decide on his or her sentencing. When sentencing, the judge takes the seriousness of the crime into consideration, as well as the circumstances of the defendant. For small, or petty, crimes the sentence is often a fine to be paid or community service. Community service means doing several hours a week of work to help the community, such as painting and decorating or working in a youth club.

More serious crimes are punished with a stay in prison. The judge decides how long this should be, depending on the crime and the circumstances of the defendant. Once a defendant has been found guilty, he or she has a right to appeal against the verdict.


Although people under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to go to an adult prison, if they commit a crime they will be punished. Children who repeatedly commit crimes like vandalism, stealing, getting drunk and being violent can be given an anti-social behaviour order. This order means they are told when and where they can go. They are given a curfew that means they have to be at home by a certain time each evening, and they may also be banned from going to certain places where they are known to have caused trouble. If they break these rules then they will be arrested.

Young people who have been arrested are tried in a youth court. If they are found guilty of a lesser crime they may be ordered to attend a centre each week where they will take part in certain activities to help them. Sometimes they are put under the care of Social Services, who monitor their progress and work closely with their parents. Teenagers over the age of 15 may be ordered to do community service. For a serious crime young people may be sent to a young offender institution. This is a kind of prison for young people that helps them to realize what they have done wrong and provides them with education and counselling.