If the defendant is pleading not guilty, appearance in court is essential. An individual may defend himself. A limited company must be represented by the company secretary, a director or a solicitor. Prosecutions initiated by the police will be passed to the Crown Prosecutions Service (CPS) in such cases.
In many circumstances it may be advisable for an individual or company to appear in court in respect of a plea of guilty, to ensure that any mitigating circumstances are fully explained.
If you are faced with the prospect of having to attend court, we would advise that you consult a solicitor in the first instance.
If you are charged with a less serious offence, which would normally be heard in a magistrates court, you should know within six months whether you are to be prosecuted. If charged, you will get a written summons from the court. This will be posted to you or handed to you personally. The summons informs you of what offences you have been charged with and gives other details, such as the day and time that you have to be at court and the address of the court building.
In England and Wales, over 95% of criminal cases are dealt with in more than 700 magistrates courts. Such cases can be divided into three categories:
- Summary Offences These are lesser offences, such as minor assault or motoring offences. Cases such as these are usually heard by a panel comprising at least two magistrates (up to a maximum of seven) known as a Bench and also a Court Clerk.
- Either-way offences These are cases that can be heard by a magistrate or at a Crown Court before a judge and jury. Theft or handling stolen goods may be considered either-way offences.
- Indictable only offences These are serious charges, such as manslaughter, murder, rape and robbery, which are always heard at a Crown Court, before a judge and jury.
A magistrates hearing can take place in a court room, with a gallery for the general public, or in a private room (although people connected to the case such as witnesses and solicitors may be invited to attend).
Any person prosecuted for an offence involving licence endorsement and/or disqualification must:
- deliver his driving licence to the clerk of the court not later than the day before the hearing; or
- post it to the court for delivery not later than that day; or
- take it to the hearing
If a new licence has been applied for from DVLA but not yet been received the holder must deliver, post or take an official receipt. Failure to produce the licence can result in a fine on conviction and automatic suspension of the licence until it is presented to the court. A licence includes the paper counterpart to a photocard licence.
Partnerships and sole traders
In cases of endorsable 'dual responsibility' offences where the employer is not a limited company, the individual or members of the partnership employing the driver are also liable to each be prosecuted, fined and have their licences endorsed.
It is generally advisable to appear in court in person. Magistrates tend to respect the fact the the accused has taken the trouble to attend court and interpret this to mean that he/ is taking the matter seriously. Also arrive at Court half an hour before the time you have been given, and upon arrival, inform the usher that you are there.
If you want to make a good impression in court:
- dress smartly
- keep your hands by your side, not in your pockets
- don't chew gum
- when you are speaking to the Magistrates, address them as 'Sir' or 'Madam'
Also remember to ask if you don't understand, it can always be explained to you.
If you admit you are guilty, the magistrates will hand down a sentence. This may be a prison term, community service or a fine. The maximum sentence a magistrate can pass down is six months imprisonment, or a £5,000 fine.
Cases heard by Crown Court will have been transferred there by the Magistrates Court, to be tried by a judge and jury. Where a driver or manager finds themselves having to attend Crown Court, it will indicate the seriousness of the offence, such as causing death by dangerous driving through the negligent action of the driver, or the knowledge by the manager that his/her employee was in breach of EC hours rules which led to the offence being committed.
What you have read above, is merely a very brief guide. The legal process can be lengthy and complex, and we would reiterate that if you are to be charged with any transport offence and are to appear in court as a result, you seek legal advice in the first instance.