Legal terms explained

The following list provides definitions of common terms used in the criminal justice process that you may not be familiar with.



A formal finding by the court that the accused person is not guilty. 


The postponement of legal proceedings to a later date, by order of the court. 


An application to a higher court for a review of a decision (such as a conviction and/or a sentence) taken by a lower court. For example a conviction in a Magistrates’ Court will be appealed to the County Court or, if it is based upon a point of law, to the Court of Appeal.  The higher court may overturn or uphold the lower court’s decision. 


The first hearing at the Crown Court when the defendant must enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

Arrest warrant

A document issued by a court authorising a person’s arrest.


Bail (and bail conditions)

The temporary release of an accused from custody, until his or her next appearance in court.  This is often subject to conditions (i.e. bail conditions) relating to, for example, where the accused must reside or the surrender of the accused’s passport.


A lawyer who represents the prosecution or defence as an advocate before a court.  A barrister speaks in court and presents the case before a judge or jury.



A formal warning that is an alternative to prosecution and means that the person will not have to appear in court.  A caution is recorded on a person's criminal record. 

A caution is also the term used to describe the warning provided by police to a suspect before questioning them in relation to a criminal offence. This caution explains to a suspect that they do not have to say anything; but if they do not mention when questioned something which they later rely on in court, it may harm their defence; and that anything they do say may be given in evidence.


A method for getting the defendant before the court e.g. ‘charged to court with an offence’.


A person below 18 years of age.

Committal Hearing

This is another term for a preliminary inquiry or preliminary investigation – see below.


A formal accusation against a person alleging that they have committed a criminal offence.


Money paid by an offender in respect of personal injury, loss or damage resulting from an offence.

Compensation order

An order of the court that an offender pay compensation for injury, loss, or damage resulting from a crime that they have committed.  This can be instead of, or in addition to, a fine.

Community responsibility order

A court order requiring a young person to attend a Community Services Center for between 20 – 40 hours and to undertake specified activities.  


A finding by a court that a person has committed an offence.


Another term for a barrister (see above).

County Court

The court that hears appeals, other than those based upon a point of law, from cases originally heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

Court of Appeal

The highest court in Northern Ireland that hears appeals from the Crown Court and also appeals on points of law from the Magistrates’ Court.

Crown Court

The court that deals with more serious (indictable) criminal cases. Trials in the Crown Court are usually heard before a judge and a jury. 

The Crown

A term sometimes used to describe the prosecution.

D, E, F


The legal team representing the defendant.


A person before a court who is being prosecuted for a criminal offence.


The oral testimony or written documentation that is presented to a court and upon which it bases any decisions.

Family liaison officer

A police officer trained to work with bereaved families to secure their confidence and trust, to provide support and information about the investigation and support services, and to gather information which contributes to the investigation.

G, H


A person appointed to safeguard, protect and manage the interests of a person under the age of 18 or a person who is not able to look after their own affairs.

Guilty Plea

A formal admission at court by the defendant that he or she has committed the offence.  The court may also find the defendant guilty after hearing the evidence in the case.

Hate crime

Any criminal offence that is motivated by hostility or prejudice based on the victim’s (actual or perceived) disability, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

High Court

The court that deals with appeals against a refusal of bail in the Magistrates’ Court.

Hung Jury

A jury (see below) that is unable to reach a verdict.

Indictable case

Certain offences will only be triable in the Crown Court and heard by a Judge sitting with a jury. Such offences are known as indictable offences and examples of these offences are murder, attempted murder and serious sexual offences.


The formal document which lists the offences for which a defendant is to be tried in the Crown Court.

J, K, L 


A legally qualified person who administers the law and who has the authority to hear and try cases in a Court of Law.


A group of 12 people who have been selected for the trial of a criminal case, to try the defendant(s) and reach a verdict on matters of fact according to the evidence presented in court.

Left on the books

When some or all of the offences before the Crown Court are not proceeded with but can be reactivated at a later stage, subject to permission from the Crown Court or the Court of Appeal.


This refers to when an offender is released from prison, is supervised by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and will have to comply with certain conditions designed to protect the public, prevent reoffending and reintegrate the offender into the community.

M, N, O

Magistrates' Court

The Magistrates' Court, hears less serious criminal cases involving adult defendants. These cases are dealt with by a District Judge sitting alone, i.e. without a jury.  

Needs assessment/Assessment of needs

An evaluation carried out by service providers to determine the kind of support that a victim may need following a crime.  This process is used to identify any additional support, special measures or protection that a victim might need if they are going to be giving evidence to the police or in court and to help them do so.

Not guilty plea

The plea the defendant enters when they do not accept that they committed the offence. 


Any act contrary to the criminal law.


A person who has been convicted of a crime.


An independent person who investigates complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from certain service providers.

Out of court disposal

Alternatives to prosecution, such as cautions, informed warnings and penalty notices for disorder. 



The defendant’s formal response to the charge that they have committed an offence.

Police bail

When the police release a suspect from custody with or without being charged, but require them to return to the police station or to the court on another day. 

Police discretion

For certain more minor crimes, if the offender admits their guilt, the police can exercise a discretion not to report the matter to the PPS. Instead police can dispose of the matter by way of, for example, a community resolution notice or a penalty notice for disorder.

Preliminary Inquiries and Preliminary Investigations

These are types of committal hearings (see above). The vast majority of committal hearings proceed as Preliminary Inquiries (often referred to be lawyers as a “PE”). Preliminary Inquiries usually proceed on the basis of the written statements of evidence and documents served by the prosecution. If witnesses are called to give oral evidence at the hearing then it will sometimes be described as a “mixed committal” by lawyers. A Preliminary Investigation is another kind of committal hearing but is extremely rare. It is often referred to be lawyers as a “PI”. In a Preliminary Investigation all witnesses attend to give oral evidence.

Prisoner Release Victim Information Scheme

A service provided by PBNI Victims Information Unit aimed at providing victims with relevant information once they have registered with the PBNI / NIPS Victim Information Unit relating to individuals who committed criminal offences which directly impacted on that victim. 

Proceed By Way of Report

When a file is sent to the PPS for a decision whether to prosecute without an accused first being charged by police to appear before a Court.  Where an accused is charged before a Court the case will sometimes be withdrawn to proceed by way of report. This means that the PPS will still take a decision but the accused is not required to come appear at court before the decision has been taken.


A lawyer employed by the Public Prosecution Service who takes decisions as to prosecution and conducts criminal prosecutions on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions.


The term used when criminal legal proceedings are taken against someone.  In Northern Ireland that role is performed by the Public Prosecution Service.


Registered Intermediary 

A professional with specialist skills in communication. Registered Intermediaries, or RIs, help vulnerable victims, witnesses (both for the prosecution and defence) and defendants (including suspects), with significant communication problems, to give evidence during the police investigation and at trial.


Where an accused person is kept in custody or placed on bail pending a further court appearance.

Reparation Order

An order of the court which requires a young person who committed an offence to carry out an agreed activity to benefit the victim or wider community, for up to 24 hours.

Restorative justice

A process where those harmed by crime, and those responsible for the harm, collectively resolve how to find a positive way forward.  This is usually with the help of a third party and is voluntary.

Rooney Hearing

A Rooney hearing is a hearing at which, upon a defence request, the judge will give an indication of the maximum sentence which the defendant will receive in the case if they enter a plea of guilty.



A punishment or penalty given to a person found guilty by a court of an offence.


The process of passing the sentence on a person convicted of an offence.  In all court cases only the judge can decide on the sentence given to an offender. 

Sexual offences prevention order

An order to protect the public from sexual harm from a person who is either convicted of, or cautioned for, a sexual offence.


Member of the legal profession who advises clients and prepares their cases, representing them in some courts.

Special measures

The various measures that a court can order to assist vulnerable or intimidated witnesses to give their best evidence in court, as set out under the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. 

Statute barred

When criminal proceedings for less serious offences are not commenced within the required time (usually 6 months from the date of the alleged offence) they become “statute barred” and can no longer be brought.

Summary case

Some less serious criminal offences are only triable summarily. Such matters will be heard before a District Judge sitting in the Magistrates’ Court without a jury. Examples of such offences are driving without insurance and driving without due care and attention.

The sentencing powers afforded to District Judges in the Magistrates’ Court permit a maximum custodial sentence of 12 months and/or the imposing of a maximum £5,000 fine.


A formal document requiring a defendant (or a witness) to appear before, or to produce evidence to, a particular court on a specified date and time.


Someone who the police believe may have committed a crime.

T, U

Temporary release

A period of release from prison to which prisoners may be entitled, usually of short duration and as they near the end of their time in custody.  This may be to help them prepare for their return to the community.  Prisoners are subject to an assessment of their risk to the public and their likelihood of re-offending and must agree to comply with specified conditions.  In certain circumstances prisoners can be released briefly on compassionate grounds (for example due to serious illness or the death of a family member).


The process in which the evidence of a case is presented in court so that a judge or jury can decide whether or not someone who is accused of a crime is guilty.

Unduly lenient sentence

A sentence which is so low that it is outside the range of sentences that the court could reasonably have imposed. The Director of Public Prosecutions has the power to refer such sentences to the Court of Appeal.

V, W, Y


Where a decision is reached that a person is guilty or not guilty.

Victim and Witness Care Unit

A Unit set up to provide information and support to victims and witnesses in cases progressing through the criminal justice system.

Victim information scheme

A statutory scheme allowing eligible victims to be given information on the offender’s sentence or their release.  It also allows them to make representations on conditions to which the offender may be subject on release.

Victim liaison officer

Probation staff who work with victims in the Victim Information Unit.  VLOs keep victims informed about key stages or events in the offenders’ sentence and ensure that victims’ views and concerns are considered.

Victim support services

Organisations providing emotional and practical support services to victims of crime.


A person who has information in relation to an offence and provides an account to either the police or the defence. If the person provides an account to the police it will usually be recorded in the form of a witness statement. Witnesses in criminal cases may be called to court to give evidence of what they saw or heard.

Youth conference

This aims to balance the needs of the victim and the young offender by agreeing plans of action which satisfy the victim and create opportunities for the young person to make amends and stop committing crime. A Youth Conference can be directed by a prosecutor as an alternative to prosecution or can be ordered by the Court.

Youth Court

The court that deals with cases involving defendants who are under 18 years at the time of hearing or who were under 18 years when the prosecution commenced.