Categories of Offences in Northern Ireland

Background

In Northern Ireland all criminal offences are triable in one of two categories:-

  • Summary prosecution
  • Indictable prosecution

The main difference between the two categorises listed above is that summary prosecutions will be heard by a District Judge sitting in the Magistrates’ Court without a jury and indictable prosecutions will be heard by a Judge in the Crown Court sitting with a jury. To determine the mode of trial to be adopted we have to look at each offence individually as the mode will differ from offence to offence.

Criminal Offences triable summarily only

Certain criminal offences are only triable summarily. Such matters will be heard before a District Judge sitting without a jury. Examples of such offences are driving without insurance and driving without due care and attention.

The sentencing powers afforded to District Judges in the Magistrates’  Court permit a maximum custodial sentence of 12 months and/or the imposing of a maximum £5,000 fine. 

Indictable Criminal Offences

Certain offences will only be triable in the Crown Court and heard by a Judge sitting with a jury. Such offences are known as indictable offences and examples of these offences are murder, attempted murder and serious sexual offences.

The maximum sentence for such offences are laid down by the statutory instruments governing the offence however the Courts have discretion to impose sentences lower than the maximum tariffs. 

Indictable Offences triable Summarily

Under Article 45 of the Magistrates’ Court Order (NI) 1981 a District Judge has the power the try an indicatable offence summarily that appears in Schedule 2 of that Order. Examples of such offences appearing in the Order are threats to kill and bigamy. A full list of the offences can be found by clicking here.

Hybrid Offences

Certain offences are triable either by summary or indictment. Such offences are referred to as hybrid offences. It is up to the prosecutor to decide the mode of trial for such offences and generally the defendant has no input in this decision making process, the exception to this being if the offence carried a custodial sentence of more than 6 months.

Summary Offences triable on Indictment

Under Article 29 of the Magistrates’ Court Order (NI) 1981 a defendant has the right to elect to have their trial heard by a Judge sitting with a jury provided that:-

  • They are over the age of 14
  • If found guilty of the offence they face a custodial sentence of more than 6 months

The Court will inform the defendant of their right to elect the mode of trial at the start of his/her case. 

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