What happens when I go to court as a defendant?

What happens when I go to court as a defendant?

A person who is subjected to criminal proceedings in a court of law is known as a ‘criminal defendant’.

If you require further help on a matter of criminal law you can use our solicitor directory to the right of this article to look for legal advice near you.

Initial hearing at court

On their first appearance in a criminal court, the defendant is asked to ‘enter’ their plea. In other words, they must declare in open court whether they plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ to the charge(s) that have been made against them.

If the defendant pleads guilty, the court will pass an appropriate sentence, provided they have the power to do so. If they plead not guilty, a date will then be set for trial.

The defendant can request the free legal advice and assistance of a duty solicitor to assist them at the first hearing.

If the defendant fails to attend court without a court-approved reason for doing so, they may have their case heard in their absence and be charged with the offence of ‘failing to appear’.

Criminal trial in a Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court

The defendant must either ‘swear’ (on a holy book of their choice) to tell the truth or, if they are not religious, they can otherwise ‘affirm’ to do so.

Lawyers for the prosecution then outline the case against the defendant.

In scrutinising the prosecution evidence and presenting a defence, the defendant can represent themselves or they can enlist the services of a solicitor to act on their behalf.

In a Magistrates’ Court, the magistrates, or a single district judge, will assess the evidence presented to it and decide whether the defendant is guilty. In a Crown Court, a jury delivers its verdict.

If the defendant is found not guilty, they are ‘acquitted’ – that is, the criminal process comes to an end and the defendant is thereafter at liberty to leave. However, if they are ‘convicted’ (found guilty), they will have a sentence imposed on them.


Sentencing can take a number of forms:

a) imprisonment

b) fine

c) community service.

Sentencing can take place upon the defendant pleading or being found guilty or at a later date, in which case the defendant will be sent back (‘remanded’) to prison until sentencing or released on bail.

Defendants appearing before a Magistrates’ Court may be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing.

‘Pre-sentence reports’ – prepared by a probation officer who meets with the defendant for assessment purposes – may be made available to the Crown Court to assist them in passing sentence.

The defendant is legally entitled to appeal against their conviction or sentence.

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