Verdicts sentencing and appeals
After listening to all the evidence in a case the District Judge or a jury (in a Crown Court) will decide on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Find out more about sentencing options if the defendant is convicted and the right to appeal.
If a defendant is found not guilty, by the magistrate, jury or judge, they will be 'acquitted' and free to go.
If the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by the judge or jury, they are convicted and the judge will pass sentence.
If you are a victim or witness in the case and have left the court before the trial has ended and would like to know the outcome of the case, you can contact the person who asked you to come to court. They will be able to give you the information on the sentence. Their contact details should be on any correspondence they send to you.
Sentencing considerations and options
Sentencing may be carried out on the day of the trial or it may be adjourned to get reports, or it may be deferred (put back to a future date) to see how the defendant behaves. If it is deferred, the defendant will have to come back to court at a later date to receive their sentence.
It is the judge alone who decides on the sentence. They are guided by a number of considerations:
- the maximum sentence they can give, which is usually set by Parliament for the offence
- whether the defendant pleaded guilty or not - if the defendant pleaded guilty, the judge can reduce (discount) the sentence, the biggest discount will usually be given for those who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity
- the level of sentences in similar cases in the past - this is called ‘case law’
- the powers of the court - a Crown Court can issue much higher penalties than a magistrates’ court
- any ‘pleas in mitigation’ or circumstances set out in background reports
- any Victim Impact Report, which is prepared by an expert, for example a psychologist
- any Victim Impact Statement made by the victim of the crime
Victim impact statements
Victims of a crime may give a statement to the court to describe the effect a crime has had on them, such as
- socially (like relationship difficulties)
When deciding what sentence to give, the District Judge (MC) and judge have to take account of the facts of the case and the offender’s circumstances and age. To help them, they may ask the Probation Board for Northern Ireland to produce a report about the offender. This is known as a Pre-Sentence Report.
The judge can give either a custodial or non-custodial sentence.
When an offender is suffering from a defined form of mental disorder the court may order their admission and detention in hospital for treatment.
To protect the public from serious harm the court will also consider the nature of the offence and the risk of the offender committing further offences and may make the hospital order subject to a restriction order. This makes sure that the offender is not allowed leave outside the hospital without the authority of the Department of Justice and they cannot be discharged from hospital except by the Department of Justice or a Mental Health Review Tribunal.
A hospital order with restriction order may also be made in respect of a person charged with an offence before the Crown Court who is found unfit to plead the charge or not guilty by reason of insanity.
Conviction from a magistrates court
If convicted in a magistrates’ court the defendant can appeal against their
- or both
If the defendant appeals against their conviction, the whole trial will be heard again but this time it will be heard at the county court in front of a judge. Witnesses will most likely have to go to court to give evidence again.
The judge may increase the sentence, reduce it, or leave it as it is.
Sometimes the prosecution or the defence may believe that the magistrates’ court has reached the wrong decision because they misinterpreted the law. In these circumstances, the case may be passed to the Court of Appeal. If the Court of Appeal decides that the magistrates’ court was wrong, it can order the magistrates’ court to hear the case again, applying the point of law correctly.
This would happen in a small number of cases. In this case it is unlikely that witnesses will be called again to give evidence.
Conviction from the Crown Court
A defendant convicted by the Crown Court can also appeal against their sentence or conviction, or both.
These appeals are heard by the Court of Appeal who can quash the conviction (decide it is wrong), order a retrial or leave the conviction as it is.
The Court of Appeal also considers appeals against sentencing in the same way as a county court judge. If the sentence imposed in the Crown Court for certain serious offences appears to be unduly lenient, that case can be referred to the Court of Appeal by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
An unduly lenient sentence is one that falls outside the range of sentences that a judge, taking into account all relevant facts, including guidance on sentencing from the Court of Appeal, could reasonably consider to be appropriate.
If a defendant has gone through the whole appeal process and believes there has been a miscarriage of justice, they can apply to have their appeal considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
The Commission can refer the case back to the Court of Appeal if they consider that there is a real possibility that a conviction or sentence would not be upheld. This only happens in a very small number of cases.
Appeals by victims
A victim, or a family member of a person who has died, does not have a right of appeal against a sentence imposed. However, if you consider that a sentence imposed is too lenient, you can contact the Director of Public Prosecutions about a sentence and your concerns.
As referrals must be made within 28 days of the sentence being imposed, concerns should be brought to the Director’s attention as soon as possible. You can do this by writing to the Director yourself or through a legal or public representative.