Representing yourself in the Magistrates Court
Why would I need to represent myself?
In the Magistrates Court, obtaining legal aid in order to be represented by a lawyer is dependent upon your financial means as well as on whether it is felt you should be represented because of the nature of the case (the "merits" test). Unless the case is considered sufficiently serious, meaning where it is considered that there is a real risk of custody upon conviction, or whether the case involves complex issues of fact or law (or both), or whether a defendant is considered particularly vulnerable, then there is a very real chance that legal aid will not be granted under the merits test, even if a person is financially eligible.
Assuming that the merits test is met, consideration is then given to the defendant's income and means. Generally speaking, if the defendant earns in excess of £12,500 each year, legal aid will be refused. This is extremely unfair and results in many defendants facing the prospect of attending court without a lawyer and having to face the prospect of dealing with a case brought against them by the police and fully qualified lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service, and where the prosecution effectively has unlimited resources.
The number of unrepresented defendants who are now appearing in our courts is truly staggering, having increased substantially over the last few years. Being unrepresented creates an obvious issue of inequality of arms and can lead to grave injustice.
Is it possible for me to represent myself in a Magistrates Court?
The answer to this question is yes, although I would suggest that it is always undesirable to do so if it can be avoided. It is highly regrettable that many defendants find themselves in the position where they are not eligible for legal aid because of their means exceeding the very low financial eligibility threshold, yet they are still not in a position to afford to pay for representation by a lawyer. Solicitors fees can be considered expensive, certainly if a case is contested and proceeds to trial.
For some of the more basic hearings before a Magistrates Court, where there is a guilty plea, such as a minor road traffic offence or something considered not to be serious such as a defendant appearing before the court for the first time for a minor offence, such as a theft with a low value, representing yourself before a Magistrates Court ought not to present a real difficulty unless, of course, you do not feel confident in speaking in public in front of others in a court room. Things become far more complex when there are complicated issues of law, or if its is contested and set down trial. It is in these circumstances that, although possible, it becomes very difficult for a defendant to properly represent themselves. The fact that you strongly believe that you are innocent can offer little protection in the trial process and your inexperience and naivety may well result in you being wrongly convicted.
What if I have no choice?
If your personal circumstances are such that you have no real choice but to represent yourself then I hope the following guide will help you.
What do the charges mean?
Most people have access to the internet. You simply need to look closely at the charge sheet (if you were charged by the police at the police station), or the charge(s) listed in the postal requisition or summons (the document you may have received in the post telling you that you have to go to court). Once you have done that, simply type the charge(s) in to your search engine online (Google for most people), and even the section of the act of for the offence(s) you have been charged with, and there should be an abundance of information online about the offence(s) you face. If you are not sure how to do this or if you have not managed to understand what you have read, simply call us and we will advise you and help you understand the charge(s) and how best to proceed.
Ironically, a very useful website is the Crown Prosecution Service website which sets out everything you'll need to know about evidence and procedure.
Can I get the evidence the prosecution have against me?
Yes, but this may not be possible before the first appearance in court. There may be guidance on how to obtain the prosecution evidence on the documentation you have been given or have received. If not, you will be entitled to request and receive it from the prosecution at court.
Do I plead guilty or not guilty?
In some cases you will readily know the answer to this question, possibly because you made admissions in interview and you realise that pleading guilty is the only option for you, or because you realise and accept that the case against you is strong and so you accept you have no real choice other than to accept your guilt. If this is the case, the court will proceed to sentence you after you have entered your guilty plea(s). The court may do so on the day, or the case may be adjourned to another day for you to be seen by a probation officer so that a report to assist the court at sentence can be prepared (known as 'pre-sentence report'). If you plead guilty and the Magistrates Court feels that it has insufficient powers of sentencing to deal with you, you may be committed to the Crown Court for sentence, and at this point you should certainly seek advice because you would then face a real risk of receiving a custodial sentence.
What happens if I plead not guilty?
If you plead not guilty, the court will decide where your trial is to be heard. Some offences can only be heard in the Magistrates Court - known as 'summary only offences', and so for this type of offence, the trial will always be in the Magistrates Court. For the more serious offences - known as 'either way' offences - the court will guide you through what is known as the 'plea before venue' procedure. For the really serious examples of this type of offence, the court may decline jurisdiction meaning that your trial will have to be heard by the Crown Court. In these circumstances, your case will be sent to the Crown Court for trial and your next court appearance will be before the Crown Court for a review hearing. For the less serious 'either way' offences, the court is likely to accept jurisdiction meaning that the court agrees to hear your case in the Magistrates Court. You will then have a choice and it will be open to you to inform the court that you want to have your case heard either by the Magistrates Court (which will then be heard before three lay magistrates, or a District Judge sitting alone), or whether you want to have your trial in the Crown Court by judge and jury. If you choose the latter, your case is adjourned for you to appear before the Crown Court for an initial review hearing. If you choose the former, the Magistrates Court will fix a trial date.
There are certain offences known as "indictable only" offences, which can only be heard at the Crown Court. As such the Magistrates will simply send your case to the Crown Court without taking any pleas and should this happen you need to seek advice immediately as the charge is clearly very serious, legal aid should be available, unless you have a disposable income of over £37,500 per annum which very few people do.
What happens after I plead not guilty
Once you plead not guilty and it has been determined that your trial is going to be heard in the Magistrates Court, the court will embark on a process of pre-trial preparation. Because you will be unrepresented, the court clerk should help you identify which witnesses from the prosecution case you require to attend court to be questioned. All other matters affecting the trial, or likely to affect the trial, will be discussed and a date and time will be set. It is important at this stage that you stand firm. If you require a witness to attend court then you should insist on that witness attending court.
Once a trial date is set, can I get any assistance to help me prepare for trial?
Whilst if you cannot pay to be represented at trial or are not eligible for legal aid it may be difficult to obtain assistance, there is a halfway house we offer. For a one-off fee of £300 plus vat, we will see you in the office for up to 2 hours, go through the evidence with you and discuss matters such as the evidence, procedural and trial issues. In essence, we will guide you through the 'do's and don'ts' of a criminal trial.
Will I get the chance to face and question my accuser?
This depends entirely on the case and the nature of the case. You may very well not get the opportunity to cross-examine your accuser in-person. For example, in the vast majority of domestic assault cases where the complainant is a partner or former partner, the court will not permit you to cross examine the complainant in person, and in the absence of you being represented in the case from the outset, the court will appoint you a lawyer simply for the purpose of cross-examining the complainant. The court appointed lawyer will usually have no further involvement in your case and you will leave to let you defend yourself for the remainder of the trial.
How should I conduct myself at trial?
This is an important consideration. Sounding arrogant, over confident, being argumentative will all adversely impact upon you and your case. You may very well have a solid defence going in to trial, but all of this can be lost if you create the wrong impression. By all means fight your corner, but do so politely, respectfully and courteously.
Don't be afraid to challenge the prosecution
Defence solicitors always challenge prosecutors in criminal trials. If you feel that something is improper, or if you feel that you are being unfairly treated, don't be afraid to say so, but do so politely.
How do I cross examine witnesses?
Carefully. Be careful not to question a witness for the sake of it, and only really ask questions that are relevant to your case. If a witness has said something you disagree with, you should challenge them on it and say why you disagree with it and give them the opportunity to respond. Always let a witness finish speaking before you ask the next question. If a witness says something different in the witness box to what they said in their original statement, and what is being said in the witness box is more harmful to your case, you must ask them why the new information was not contained in their original statement? Finally, you must always 'put your case.' This means putting to the witness what your defence is. For example, if a witness in a case said that the defendant took their car without their consent, and the defendant's case was that permission was in fact at all times given, the defendant would need to put it to the witness that what they are saying was wrong, and that in fact consent was given. There are likely to be several matters that need to be put to prosecution witnesses who attend court for trial.
Again, put your case respectfully and politely even though you may not like the responses you receive. If you conduct yourself in this way, you will come across all the better before the Magistrates and you may well increase your chances of an acquittal.
Preparation is key
Be prepared. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. There is absolutely no shame or embarrassment in having detailed notes to take with you in court, perhaps even a list of pre-prepared questions.
Tell the truth
This may seem obvious but it is vital, especially as telling lies as a sworn witness in court proceedings is a criminal offence in itself.
If you have any questions or would like to take advantage of our halfway house offer, please contact us in London (West Drayton) on 01895 449288 or in Hertfordshire (St Albans) on 01727 840900 or by email via our contact page.