Someone charged with a crime must go to court to answer that charge.

A person accused of a crime is called a ‘defendant’. The authority responsible for prosecuting the case in court is called the ‘prosecutor’. In most cases that will be the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

There are three types of criminal court in the UK:

  • Magistrates’ courts
  • Crown Court
  • Youth courts

Magistrates' courts

All criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court.

Cases are heard by either:

  • two or three magistrates
  • a district judge

There's no jury in a magistrates’ court. The district judge decides if the defendant is guilty or not and what sentence to give.

A magistrates’ court normally handles cases known as ‘summary offences’, for example:

  • most motoring offences
  • minor criminal damage
  • common assault (not causing significant injury)

It can also deal with some of the more serious offences, such as:

  • burglary
  • drugs offences

These are called ‘either way’ offences and can be heard either in a magistrates’ court or a Crown Court.

Crown Court

Magistrates’ courts always pass the most serious crimes to the Crown Court, for example:

  • murder
  • rape
  • robbery

These are known as ‘indictable offences’. 

A Crown Court normally has a jury which decides if the defendant is guilty or not, and a judge who decides on the sentence.

Youth court

A youth court is a special type of magistrates’ court for people aged between 10 and 17.

A youth court has either:

  • three magistrates
  • a district judge

There is no jury in a youth court.

If the defendant is found guilty then the judge, or magistrate, will decide the sentence.


A sentence can be an order to spend time in prison, to pay a fine, or to carry out unpaid work, or to do, or not do, other things.

Find out more about How sentences are worked out.