Types of criminal offence in uk law
There are three categories of criminal offence in UK law. Criminal offences are dealt with by the courts according to the category they fall into. The main differences between the categories are the sentence period, the type of court and the authority (or decision maker).
A summary offence is the least serious type of criminal offence.
Some examples of summary offences are:
- low level motoring offences
- minor criminal damage
- common assault
- being drunk and disorderly
- taking a motor vehicle without consent
Type of Court
Summary offences can only be tried in a Magistrates’ Court. However, if the summary offence is attached to another crime in the either-way or indictable only category it may, in some limited circumstances, be dealt with in the Crown Court.
The vast majority of all criminal offences are dealt with by the Magistrates Court.
A summary offence normally carries a maximum sentence of 6 month’s imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.
The Magistrates’ Court can also give punishments such as a ban or community service.
Cases in the Magistrates’ Court are usually heard either by a District Judge sitting alone, or by a bench of three Magistrates.
Either way offences
An either way offence can be heard in either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court. The range of offences within this category is very wide in terms of the level of seriousness.
Some examples include:
- Assault & GBH
- Possession of controlled drugs
- Supply of controlled drugs
- Possession of an offensive weapon
- Dangerous driving
- Certain sexual offences such as possession of indecent images
- Various regulatory offences
The main factor in deciding which court will deal with an either way offence is the likely sentence the defendant will face if found guilty.
Taking theft as an example, the seriousness of the crime can range from relatively low value shoplifting to large scale theft involving millions of pounds.
At the lower end of the scale, a theft offence such as shoplifting would remain in the Magistrates Court, whereas a crime at the upper end of the scale involving much higher sums of money, and/or a wider impact on victims, would merit a sentence above the range available to the Magistrates Court, and will therefore be sent to the Crown Court.
The maximum sentence for an either-way offence dealt with by the Magistrate’s Court is 6 months. If the case is referred to the Crown Court the maximum penalty is whatever the maximum for that offence is by law.
Type of court
A person charged with an either way offence must first appear before a Magistrates’ Court where they will be asked to submit their plea. The Magistrates’ Court will hear the facts of the case and decide where the case should be allocated for trial or sentence.
The facts of the individual offence will determine how serious it is and hence whether the sentence will be within the powers of the Magistrates (a maximum of 6 months for a single either-way offence) or whether it will need to go to the Crown Court where higher penalties can be given. Using the example of theft again, it has a maximum penalty of 6 months' imprisonment if dealt with in the Magistrates' Court or a maximum of 7 years' imprisonment if dealt with in the Crown Court.
Either way offences dealt with by the Magistrates’ Court will be decided by the magistrate or District Judge. Cases dealt with by the Crown Court will be decided by a judge and jury.
Indictable only offences
Indictable only offences are the most serious category of criminal offence and can only be dealt with in the Crown Court.
As this is the most serious category of offence, the maximum sentences are long. Many indictable only offences carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Type of court
Although a person charged with an indictable only offence must first appear before the Magistrates’ Court, the case will be sent immediately to the Crown Court to be dealt with by a judge.
If the case proceeds to a trial, the jury will decide on the defendant’s innocence or guilt. It is always for the judge to pass sentence.
Indictable only offences include:
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