What does a Magistrates' Courtroom look like?
For most people facing a motoring offence, it is a stressful time. It's a situation many have never been in before and the idea of having to appear at court is terrifying.
At Pragma, we understand that people not only need advice on the legal issues, but they also want to know what the procedure will be at court. Common questions include:
- What will I have to say?
- What do I call the magistrates?
- What should I wear?
- Who will be in the courtroom?
- Will the police/witnesses be there?
We strive to answer all of these questions in an effort to keep stress to a minimum. Fear of the unknown is only natural, so we do what we can to remove as much uncertainty as possible.
As most people are unfamiliar with a courtroom of any kind, we have included a basic diagram of a courtroom layout. Please bear in mind that all courtrooms are slightly different, particularly nowadays as court hearings are heard in rooms that weren't originally designed to be courtrooms. However, the basic elements remain the same.
In some older courtrooms, the magistrates (also known as "The Bench") sit at a raised desk so they are looking down on the rest of the courtroom, which has the effect of making the whole experience more intimidating (presumably this is deliberate!). Fortunately, in many modern courtrooms, the magistrate's desk is only raised slightly, or not at all.
Many courtrooms also have a dock where defendants will stand. However all but the most serious of motoring offences do not require a defendant to stand in the dock, so this has not been included on the diagram.
Usually, the courtroom is presided over by three magistrates, but sometimes there may be only two. Sometimes you may find that you don't get magistrates at all, and instead have a District Judge (also known as a DJ - not the musical kind!).
The bench is there to make a decision as to whether or not a defendant should be convicted, and what sentences to impose.
Magistrates are not legally qualified as solicitors (although they are legally trained). For this reason, the legal adviser who is legally qualified sits in front of the bench and gives advice on the law and the powers of the magistrates. The legal advisers are also meant to assist defendants who do not have a solicitor as well as dealing with paperwork and ensuring the court runs smoothly. Therefore there will also be a legal adviser even when a DJ is sitting.
The legal adviser is not there to make a decision on your conviction or sentence; that is the job of the bench.
The prosecutor is there to present the facts of the case and represent the prosecuting authority. Depending on their status, they may also make decisions as to whether or not to proceed with offences. They cannot make a decision about sentencing.
The defence solicitor represents you. Obviously, if you choose to represent yourself, no-one will be stood here.
This is where the defendant stands throughout the hearing unless they are giving evidence on oath. Depending on the layout, in some courtrooms, the defendant may stand at the side of the room instead.
This is where defendants and most witnesses stand when giving evidence. Before giving evidence, each will have to either swear on a religious book or alternatively affirm that the evidence they are about to give will be the truth and nothing but the truth. The court usher will guide you through this.
Most criminal courts are open to the public. This is where anyone else can sit if they want. The exception to this is witnesses who are not allowed into the courtroom until they give evidence. Once they've given their evidence, they're free to stay in the courtroom.
Many road traffic courts don't have specific places for press and probation to sit. Often neither are present in a courtroom which is dealing with motoring offences. However, probation may be present if the defendant is facing an offence such as high-level drink driving where a community order or custodial penalty is possible, or if the court is dealing with a variety of offences ie. not just motoring offences.
Magistrates are collectively addressed as "Your Worships". You may notice that one magistrate does all the talking. He or she is known as the lead magistrate and should be addressed as Sir, Madam or Ma'am if you are asked a direct question and need to respond.
Just use your common sense for this. Either wear a suit or some other smart clothing to show respect. Your work clothes are also generally acceptable too, as they at least give the impression that you are a hard worker. Think about what you'd wear to a job interview and you should be on the right lines.
Avoid jeans, joggers or anything else that gives the impression that you couldn't care less. These are fine if you're lounging at home, but not advisable for the courtroom. The courts deal with many defendants who are repeat offenders and who make no effort to show respect to the court. You want to set yourself apart from other defendants and show you take the court hearing seriously if you want to give yourself the best chance of a good result.
The other questions listed above depend on factors such as the nature of your motoring offence and your plea. We can answer all of these questions for you.