1. Criminal offences may be grouped into three categories. Offences friable only on indictment – the very serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery – are tried only by the Crown Court presided over by a judge sitting with a jury. Summary offences – the least serious offences and the vast majority of criminal cases – are tried by unpaid lay magistrates sitting without a jury. A third category of offences (such as theft, burglary, or malicious woundings) are known as either way offences and can be tried either by magistrates or by the Crown Court depending on the circumstances of each case and the wishes of the defendant.

2. In addition to dealing with summary offences and the either way offences which are entrusted to them, the magistrates’ courts commit cases to the Crown Court either for trial or for sentence. Committals for trial are either of indictable offences or of either way offences, which it has been determined, will be tried in the Crown Court. Com­mittals for sentence occur when the defendant in an either way case has been tried summarily but the court has decided to commit him or her to the Crown Court for sentence.

3. Magistrates must as a rule sit in open court to which the public and the media are admitted. A court normally consists of three lay magis­trates – known as justices of the peace – advised on points of law and procedures by a legally qualified clerk or a qualified assistant. Magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor, except in Lanca­shire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside where appointments are made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. There are nearly 28,000 lay magistrates.