Why a case goes to court

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is the principal prosecuting authority in Northern Ireland, deciding if people should be prosecuted for criminal offences. They also decide on prosecution in cases investigated by the police. They also consider cases investigated by other authorities, such as HM Revenue and Customs.

Deciding to prosecute

When the PPS receives a case file from the police, with witness statements and other evidence, they might ask the police to investigate further if they believe extra information is needed.

A decision to prosecute is based on two tests:

  • the evidential test  decides if there's enough evidence for a reasonable prospect of a conviction
  • the public interest test decides if prosecution is in the public interest

If the PPS prosecutor decides that there is enough evidence to prosecute, and that it is in the public interest, they will direct a prosecution. They decide what offences the defendant should be prosecuted for, prepare the papers, and prosecute the case in court.  

If you are the victim in the case, you will be informed in writing of the prosecution decision.  If the decision is not to prosecute, you will also be informed of that decision in writing. In certain serious cases, you will be given reasons for the decision not to prosecute.

The PPS must decide if prosecution at court is the best way of dealing with the case.

Alternatives to formal court processes

In some cases the PPS will use alternatives to court or diversionary options. These include:

  • informed warning – this is a formal reprimand by the police, it's not a conviction but is recorded on the person’s criminal record for 12 months
  • caution – this is a formal reprimand by the police recorded on an adult's criminal record for five years or 30 months on a young person's record
  • diversionary youth conference – this is available if the offender is under 18 years old, admits the offence and consents to the conference

Find out more about the youth justice system.

Starting prosecution proceedings

If a decision is made to prosecute, a case can begin with either a charge sheet or a summons.

If it's a charge sheet, this involves the police charging the suspect, who has been arrested. The PPS reviews the charge before the first court appearance to make sure there is enough evidence to prosecute the defendant. The defendant will either be:

  • held in police custody overnight and produced at the first available court, where the court will have to consider bail
  • released on police bail to appear before court on a given date within 28 days from the charge

If it's a summons, this is issued by the PPS and is served on the defendant either by post or in person. The defendant must go to court on the date given on the summons.

​Find out more about custody and bail.

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