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Courts Act 2003

Rulings at pre-trial hearings

99.These provisions allow for binding rulings to be made at pre-trial hearings in criminal cases that are to be heard in the magistrates’ courts. The power will be available following a not guilty plea up to the commencement of the trial and extends to issues of law and admissibility of evidence.

100.Currently, a number of different pre-trial hearings may take place in the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts. In the Crown Court the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (CPIA 1996), sections 39-43, provide for binding rulings on matters of law and admissibility of evidence.

101.The magistrates’ courts have a number of their own pre-trial hearings under current arrangements. Where a guilty plea is anticipated, an Early First Hearing is scheduled. Early Administrative Hearings handle non-guilty pleas. In cases where the defendant is charged with an offence triable either way, magistrates hearing the case under ‘initial procedure’ will take a plea before determining venue. Following a not-guilty indication, magistrates may then determine mode of trial (section17A MCA 1980). Where a case is to be tried summarily, a date for a pre-trial review is set, wherever it is deemed necessary. Pre-trial reviews are intended to assist the court in assessing the parties’ readiness for trial. However, practices do differ across the country. Magistrates sitting at pre-trial hearings may make directions or recommendations as to appropriate preparation or conduct of the case. Such a direction may be noted on the court log, but would not bind any future magistrates hearing the case, although the next bench might take the direction into account in making any decision.

102.The proposed power is intended to assist in ensuring more efficient preparation of cases for trial in the magistrates’ courts, as recommended by the Auld Review. It will bring the powers of lay magistrates and judges in pre-trial hearings heard in the magistrates’ courts into line with those of the Crown Court. This is consistent with closer integration of the criminal courts.

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