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Criminal courts in England/Wales

There are two levels of criminal courts in England and Wales:

  • Magistrates courts. Trials are usually heard by three magistrates (justices of the peace), or a district judge. Their sentencing powers are more limited than those of judges in Crown courts. Offences are usually punishable by a fine up to a specified maximum and/or a short term of imprisonment. The police and other regulators can prosecute crime directly in the magistrates courts. Trained prosecutors of the Environment Agency are given the express power to do so by section 54 of the Environment Act 1995.
  • Crown courts. Trials are heard by a judge and a 12 person jury. The jury decides whether the defendant is guilty of the offence, beyond all reasonable doubt. The judge decides the sentence. Crown courts usually deal with more serious cases. They can impose more severe sentences than magistrates.

Sentencing guidelines set out factors that magistrates and judges should take into account when setting a fine or deciding on a prison term. Recent changes to the guidelines mean that judges in Crown courts are setting increasingly high fines.

Environmental Offences Definitive Guideline, issued by the Sentencing Council (2014)

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