In England and Wales, a magistrates' court is a lower court which holds trials for summary offences and preliminary hearings for more serious ones. Some civil matters are also decided here, notably family proceedings. In 2015 there were roughly 330 magistrates' courts in England and Wales, though the Government was considering closing up to 57 of these. The jurisdiction of magistrates' courts and rules governing them are set out in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.
Almost all criminal proceedings start at a magistrates' court. Summary offences are smaller crimes that can be punished under the magistrates' court's limited sentencing powers – community sentences, fines, short custodial sentences. Indictable offences, on the other hand, are serious crimes (rape, murder); if an initial hearing at the magistrates' court finds there is a case to answer, they are committed to the Crown Court, which has a much wider range of sentencing power. Either-way offences will ultimately fall into one of the previous categories depending on how serious the particular crime in question is.
Cases are heard by a bench of three (or occasionally two) lay judges, or by a paid district judge (magistrates' courts); there is no jury at a magistrates' court. Criminal cases are usually, although not exclusively, investigated by the police and then prosecuted at the court by the Crown Prosecution Service. Defendants may hire a solicitor or barrister to represent them, often paid for by legal aid.
There are magistrates' courts in other common-law jurisdictions.
In criminal matters, magistrates’ courts (formerly known as a police courts) in England and Wales have been organized to deal with minor offences in a speedy manner. All criminal cases start here and over 95 percent of them will end here too – only the most serious ones go to Crown Court.
Summary offences are the least serious criminal offences. They include driving offences, vandalism, criminal damage of small extent, low level violent offences and being drunk and disorderly. This kind of small criminality will be dealt with in summary proceedings at a magistrates' court, and the defendant has no right to a jury trial and no formal indictment is necessary. Both verdict and sentence are solely in the hands of judges and magistrates.
The sentencing powers of magistrates' courts are therefore limited, usually to a maximum of six months imprisonment. When dealing with two or more separate either-way offences, the maximum total custodial sentence is 12 months. However, should there be more than one summary only offence, the court's powers are limited to a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment, the nominal maximum sentencing powers of the magistrates' court. The maximum fine available used to be £5,000. However, this was raised by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to allow unlimited fines from March 2015 for specified offences. There is no maximum aggregate fine (in the case of two or more offences). Some driving offences are punished by licence points and/or disqualification from driving for a period of time.