Verdicts and sentencing

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. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge in the case will decide the sentence.

The verdict

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

The judge can give either a custodial or non-custodial sentence.

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

  • emotionally
  • medically
  • physically
  • socially (like relationship problems)
  • financially

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.

Find out more about victim impact statements.

Hospital orders

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 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 for 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.

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