Court Hearings, Plea's & Defence
If a defendant is pleading not guilty then appear in court is essential. An individual may defend themselves if they wish. 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 faced with the prospect of having to attend court, we would advise that a solicitor is consulted in the first instance.
If charged with a less serious offence, which would normally be heard in a magistrate’s court, a decision to prosecute should be provided within six months. If charged, a written summons will be delivered from the court. This will be posted or handed out personally. The summons informs of what offences a driver has been charged with and provides other details, such as the day and time for attendance at the 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 - lesser offences, such as minor assault or motoring offences. Cases such as these are usually heard by a panel comprising of at least two magistrates and up to a maximum of seven, known as a Bench and also a Court Clerk.
- Either-way offences - 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 - serious charges, such as manslaughter, murder, rape and robbery, which are always heard at a Crown Court, before a judge and jury.
A magistrate's hearing can take place in a courtroom, with a gallery for the general public, or in a private room, although those 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/her driving licence to the clerk of the court not later than the day before the hearing; or
- post the licence to the court for delivery not later than that day; or
- take the licence to the hearing
If a new licence has been applied for from DVLA but has not yet been received, the holder must deliver, post or take an official receipt to the court. Failure to produce the licence can result in a fine or conviction and automatic suspension of the licence until it is presented to the court.
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 is prosecuted, fined and have their licences endorsed.
It is generally advisable to appear in court in person. Magistrates may respect the fact that the accused has taken the trouble to attend court and interpret this to mean that he/she is taking the matter seriously. Also, it is best to arrive at court half an hour before the time given, and inform the usher on arrival.
To make a good impression in court it is sensible to:
- dress smartly
- keep hands at the side, not in pockets
- not chew gum
- address magistrates as 'Sir' or 'Madam' when talking to them
- ask questions if something is not understood
If someone pleads or is found 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 the 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 indicates 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.
The above is only a very brief guide. The legal process can be lengthy and complex, and if anyone is to be charged with any transport offence and are to appear in court as a result, it is vital that professional legal advice is sought in the first instance.