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How the courts work

There are different types of courts in England and Wales which cover between them all legal disputes, from defendants accused of crimes, consumers in debt, children at risk of harm, businesses involved in commercial disputes or individuals asserting their employment rights. The main three types of court are:

  • criminal courts - dealing with all cases where a crime has been committed and there is enough evidence gathered against the alleged offender for there to be a reasonable chance of a conviction
  • civil courts - dealing with disputes between private individuals and/or organisations, such as the non-repayment of a debt, personal injury, the breach of a contract concerning goods or property, housing disputes, bankruptcy or insolvency
  • family courts - dealing with disputes relating to family matters including divorces, disputes about financial issues or custody of the children following the breakdown of a relationship, domestic violence, adoption or protection of children from abuse or neglect

Find out more about the courts system...

Criminal cases

All criminal court cases start in a magistrates' court, and the vast majority will finish there. A small number will be referred to a higher court, usually the Crown Court.

Cases at magistrates' courts

Some offences, such as motoring offences or disorderly behaviour, are dealt with only by magistrates' courts. They are known as summary offences. The maximum punishment for a single summary offence is six months in prison, and/or a fine of up to £5,000.

About 1.5 million to 2 million criminal cases go through the magistrates' courts each year.

Find out more about magistrates' courts...

Serious cases

The most serious offences like murder, robbery or rape can only be dealt with in the Crown Court, which is able to hand out more severe sentences. A number of crimes, including certain drug offences and serious fraud offences, can be dealt with by either magistrates' courts or the Crown Court - these are called either-way offences

About 100,000 cases per year are passed to the Crown Court to be tried. A further 40,000 cases are also passed to the Crown Court because the punishment the magistrates' court thinks the defendant deserves is more than it can give.

Find out more about magistrates' courts...

Civil cases

In England and Wales, civil disputes - those not relating to family disputes or the committing of a crime - are usually dealt with at the county courts, sometimes called the small claims courts.

Bringing a case to court

Civil disputes which are brought to court are called claims. Once a claimant has brought a case to court, the defendant - the person or organisation against whom they are bringing the case - has 14 days to decide what to do in response. They can:

  • do nothing
  • settle the dispute by coming to an agreement with the claimant
  • challenge the case, also called 'making a defence'

If the defendant does nothing, then the claimant can ask the court to order the defendant to pay the amount claimed. If the defendant continues to challenge the case and cannot reach a settlement with the claimant, then the case will be decided in court at a hearing.

Types of cases

Civil hearings are presided over by a single judge, without juries. There are two main types:

  • small claims hearings - usually where the value being disputed is less than £5,000
  • trials - usually where the value being disputed is greater than £5,000

Find out more about county courts...

About 1.5 million to 2 million civil claims are brought to the county courts each year. But not all civil disputes are dealt with at the county courts. Particularly important, complex or substantial cases are instead dealt with in the High Court. Cases relating to a failure to pay council tax or child maintenance are dealt with at magistrates' courts.

Family courts

In England and Wales, disputes relating to family matters are dealt with in the single family court.Before 22nd April 2014, family cases were dealt with at Family Proceedings Courts (part of magistrates courts) or at County Courts.

Family court cases are presided over either by magistrates or judges and are without juries.

Find out more about family courts...

Care proceedings

Where the social services department of a local authority believes that a child who lives in the area is suffering from abuse or neglect by their parents, they can bring a case to a family court to try to protect the child and ensure they get the care they need. These court cases are called care proceedings cases or public law cases.

These will often involve a number of different court hearings. At the final hearing, the judge or the magistrates will make an order which will decide who should look after the child from that point onwards.

Find out more about care proceedings...

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