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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Contempt of Court
Known as ‘contempt’ for short, placing someone in contempt of court is a judge’s most effective means of punishing anyone whose actions prevent the court from completing their required actions. There are a few different ways that someone can be found in contempt of court. The most common is through direct contempt, which occurs when the person exhibits disruptive or disrespectful behavior while in the courtroom. This can include talking back to the judge, refusing to answer questions, or causing a disturbance. Another way someone can be found in contempt is indirectly, which happens when the person disobeys a court order outside of the courtroom. This could be something like failing to pay child support or not showing up for a required appearance.
In court, a judge may find an individual in contempt of court if they are:
1. Disrespectful - insulting the judge, a court officer, lawyer or witness
2. Disobedient - not complying with the lawful order of the court
3. Disruptive - being rude or noisy in court
If someone is found in contempt of court, there are a few different punishments that can be handed down. The most common is a fine, which can range from a small amount to a maximum of £2,500. In some cases, especially if the person is unable to pay the fine, they may be sentenced to jail time for a maximum of 1 month in the magistrates' court, or up to 2 years in the Appeal Court and Crown Court.
While it may seem like an extreme measure, placing someone in contempt of court is often necessary in order to maintain order and respect for the legal system. Without this power, judges would have little ability to punish those who choose to flout the law and disrupt proceedings. While fines and jail time may seem harsh, the purpose is to uphold the sanctity of the law, and to ensure language and behaviour are maintained appropriately throughout sometimes very stressful and emotional proceedings.
There are two types of contempt of court – criminal contempt and civil contempt.
Criminal contempt of court is a serious offence that can result in a jail sentence. This type of contempt occurs when someone willfully disobeys or resists the authority, process or order of a court, or interferes with the administration of justice. These actions are done with the intention of obstructing or disrupting the court proceedings. You can find out more about the definitions of criminal contempt of court on the UK Government Website.
Some examples of criminal contempt include:
1. Refusing to be sworn in as a witness
2. Failing to answer questions during cross-examination
3. Disrupting proceedings by making noise or speaking out of turn
4. Interfering with witnesses or jurors
5. Refusing to hand over evidence when ordered to do so by the court
6. Threatening, assaulting or intimidating anyone involved in the court case such as lawyers, witnesses or jury members
7. Publishing material that could prejudice a fair trial such as identifying jurors before they have retired to consider their verdict
Civil contempt of court is conduct that is not a crime in itself, but is punishable by the court in order to ensure that its orders are observed.
Some examples of civil contempt include:
1. Failing to pay child support
2. Not complying with a visitation schedule
3. Not following the terms of a divorce decree
4. Refusing to obey a court order to turn over property
5. Violating the terms of a restraining order
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