How a criminal offence is dealt with depends on the category it falls within.

There are 3 types of criminal offence:

  1. Summary offences
  2. Either way offences
  3. Indictable only offences

What are summary offences under UK law?

This type of criminal offence can only be tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The only exception to this is when the offence is linked or associated with a more serious offence which has been sent to the Crown Court.
There are many offences that fall within this category. Almost all driving offences are summary offences, with the exception of dangerous driving or offences whereby a fatality has occurred.
Common assault involving minor injury- which is the least serious form of assault – is a summary only offence, as are section 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act, involving offensive words or behaviour.
Summary offences normally carry a maximum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment, although certain offences such as vehicle interference have a lower maximum sentence of 3 month.

What are either way offences under UK law?

This type of criminal offence can be dealt with 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.

Examples of either way offences are:

  • Theft
  • Burglary
  • Possession of drugs
  • Possession with intent to supply drugs
  • Affray
  • Assault occasioning actual bodily harm

A person charged with an either way offence must first appear before a Magistrates’ Court where an indication of plea will be requested. The Magistrates’ Court will hear the facts of the case and decide where the case should be allocated for trial or sentence.

If on the facts of a case, the magistrates are of the opinion that their sentencing powers are insufficient (if there is one either way offence then the maximum is 6 months, if there are 2 or more then the maximum is 12 months) then they will decline jurisdiction and allocate the case to the Crown Court.

If the magistrates are of the opinion that their sentencing powers are sufficient, then the case is allocated to the Magistrates’ Court. However, a defendant is then given the option of electing for the case to proceed to the Crown Court in any event. This is a balancing act and requires careful consideration as there can be tactical and financial considerations to be taken into account. Specialist legal advice on all the circumstances is required.

What are indictable only offences?

The most serious criminal offences, indictable only offences can only be dealt with in the Crown Court.

A person charged with an indictable only offence must first appear before the Magistrates’ Court, yet 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:

What is contempt of court?

During a criminal hearing in court, a judge may find an individual in contempt of court if they behave:

  1. Disrespectfully – by showing disrespect for the judge or other parties in the courtroom
  2. Disobediently – by failing to comply with a lawful order of the court
  3. Disruptively – disturbing court proceedings by acting in a noisy manner  

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.

A judge may warn an individual that, should they continue to misbehave, they will be held in contempt of court. This warning allows the individual to cease and correct their behaviour.

This guide is intended to give general information only and is not intended to be used as the basis upon which advice is given. Nor should it be relied upon as giving advice specific to a case or individual. Lawtons do not accept liability for anyone using this guide. Should you require specific advice in connection with a real case or situation, please contact us immediately so that we can provide specific advice and guidance.