From start to end, particularly in more serious or complex cases, the criminal justice process can seem long and confusing to victims and witnesses. There are many people involved including the police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges and the jury. In this section you can read about the five steps of the prosecution process.
Step 1: The police investigation
The police are responsible for investigating crime. They will take statements and gather evidence about any possible offences. If they have evidence in relation to an identified suspect they will send a file to the Public Prosecution Service.
At this point the PPS, through our Victim and Witness Care Unit (VWCU), will contact victims to keep them informed about how the case is progressing. You can read more about the VWCU by clicking the link.
Step 2: Will the case be prosecuted?
A prosecutor will look at all the evidence and information contained within the file submitted by police. They will decide whether that evidence is sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if it is, whether prosecution is in the public interest. This is known as the Test for Prosecution and you can read more about how prosecutors reach decisions in our Prosecution Guidance section.
In less serious cases, a prosecutor may decide that a case can be dealt with by an alternative to prosecution. You can also read more about alternatives to prosecution by clicking the link.
If the decision is to prosecute the prosecutor will also decide the appropriate charges to be brought against the defendant.
If the defendant is an adult, a prosecutor will also decide whether a case should be prosecuted in the Magistrates' Court or the Crown Court.
If the defendant is under 18 the case will be heard in the Youth Court. If a prosecution of a youth begins when they are under 18 and he or she turns 18 during the case, the Youth Court may continue to deal with it and make any order that it could have made if the defendant were still under 18.
In some cases, when a prosecution decision is taken, the defendant will already be before the Court because they were charged by police. If the decision is not to prosecute then the case will be over and the defendant will be released from custody or any continuing bail conditions.
Step 3: Prosecution in the Magistrates’ Court
If the decision is to prosecute an adult defendant in the Magistrates’ Court the case will be heard by a District Judge who will decide a defendant’s innocence or guilt.
If the defendant pleads guilty he or she will then be sentenced. In some cases that will take place on the day of the guilty plea. In other cases, usually where the court requires further information in order to sentence the defendant, the case may be adjourned to a subsequent date for sentencing to take place.
If the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, then the case will be scheduled for a contested hearing where the victims and witnesses will be required to give evidence. The prosecution will provide the court with the availability of its witnesses so that this can be taken into account when setting the date for trial.
You can read more information about attending court by clicking the links to the relevant sections.
Prosecution in the Youth Court
A Youth Court case will be heard by a District Judge who acts as a chairperson sitting as a panel with two lay magistrates.
The process is the same as for adults who are prosecuted in the Magisrates' Court however special arrangements apply to ensure that the 'best interests' of the child or young defendant are a primary consideration throughout the case.
Prosecution in the Crown Court
Certain more serious offences can only be prosecuted in the Crown Court. There are also other offences where the prosecutor can decide to bring the proceedings in the Crown Court, where greater sentencing powers are available.
In a small number of Crown Court cases, usually those involving terrorist offences, the case will be heard by a Judge sitting alone. In such cases the Judge will provide a written judgment setting out the reasons for the decision that they have reached.
Where the decision is to bring the prosecution in the Crown Court a preliminary hearing in the Magistrates’ Court must first take place. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to send the defendant for trial. This is known as a committal hearing.
The vast majority of such hearings proceed on the basis of the written evidence and do not involve the calling of witnesses.
Generally, a defendant has a right to have witnesses called at the committal hearing. If they exercise that right the case will likely be adjourned so that the prosecution can arrange for their attendance. A witness who attends a committal hearing will give evidence under oath and is liable to be cross-examined by the defence.
Having heard the evidence and considered any submissions by the parties the court will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to send the defendant for trial in the Crown Court.
The first hearing at Crown Court is called the 'arraignment', which is when the defendant must enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.
Step 4: Trial and outcome
In a criminal trial the onus is on the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
During the trial, the prosecution will call witnesses and present evidence to support its case against the defendant. The defendant can decide whether to give evidence before the court or put other evidence forward to support their innocence.
If someone pleads guilty to committing a crime, or a judge or jury finds them guilty after a trial, the judge will need to decide on the appropriate penalty, and sentence them accordingly. Sentences can include a period of imprisonment, a community-based sentence or a fine.
When deciding the appropriate sentence, a judge will take into account a Victim Personal Statement if one has been submitted.
In the Crown Court, if the judge or jury decides there is not enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt the defendant committed the crime, they must find them not guilty. The defendant is acquitted and is free to leave the court.
If the jury can’t reach a verdict, this is known as a 'hung jury' and the prosecution will be given some time to consider whether it is appropriate to seek a re-trial of the defendant.
Step 5: Appeal
A defendant may appeal against conviction and/ or sentence. If the trial has been heard in the Magistrates’ Court an appeal against conviction will involve a re-hearing of the case in the County Court. This usually requires the witnesses to attend and give evidence again.
If the trial was heard in the Crown Court, any appeal can be brought only on a point of law to the Court of Appeal. Such an appeal does not involve the Court in re-hearing the evidence. If the appeal against conviction is successful then there may, depending upon the circumstances, be a re-trial in the Crown Court.
The prosecution do not have any right to appeal against an acquittal.
The prosecution has certain rights to appeal convictions it considers as unduly lenient.
Click the link to read more about Unduly Lenient Sentences.