The Criminal Justice System

Subscribe on YouTube

I help students navigate the complexities of studying law and becoming a lawyer!

πŸŽ“ Study advice, tips and guides

🎬 Two new videos every week (I accept requests and reply to everything!)

πŸ“š FREE legal textbooks, courses, and other exciting giveaways

Gareth Evans' personal youtube channel

Introduction to the Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system (CJS) administers the criminal law.

Agencies involved in criminal law include the police service, the Crown Prosectuion Service, Serious Fraud Office, Criminal Case Review Commission, prison service, and the crown/appeal/magistrate courts.

The CJS uses approximately Β£19 billion/year.

Theories of criminal justice

Duo process model: the main goal of criminal law is 'justice' and emphasises fairness.

Crime control model: the main goal of criminal law is to punish.

Medical model: the main goal of criminal law is the rehabilitation of offenders.

Restorative justice model: the main goal of criminal law is to get offenders to recognise their crime and make amends.

Bureaucratic model: the main goal of criminal law is to manage crime and ensure the offender moves through the system quickly.

Status passage model: the main goal of criminal law is to degrade offender and shame him/her.

Power model: the main goal of criminal law is to maintain a particular social/class order.

None of these theories of crimimal justice are perfect: different people take different views on the correct theory.

The Pre-Trial Stage

The Committing, reporting, and recording of a crime

A criminal act must be committed.

Unless a criminal act has been reported no action will be taken.

Most crimes are reported to the police, but it is also possible to report a crime to:

  • Local authorities in certain areas e.g. in public health.
  • Government departments e.g. social security benefit fraud, tax evasion, etc.
  • Health and safety agencies e.g. unlawful emissions.

More reports are dealt with by bodies other than the police, but the police is still the largest single agency dealing with crime.

If police appear to be unsympathetic then less crime will be reported e.g. this used to be the case in rape cases, before training and efforts were made to change police attitudes towards rape cases.

Even if reported the police may think there is no need to record the report, so no further action will be taken.

Even if reported and recorded further action may not take place e.g. petty theft.

The Investigation Stage - Police Powers

Once a crime has been reported, there will then be an investigation.

Usually this is expensive and uses a lot of resources.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) altered the police power of investigation. Their powers are supplemented by a code of practice they should follow:

  • Code A = Power to stop and search
  • Code B = Search and seizure
  • Code C = Detention, Treatment, and Questioning of Persons
  • Code D = Identification of Persons
  • Code E = Tape Recording
  • Code F = Visual Recording of Interviews
  • Code G = Statutory Power of Arrest by Police Officers
  • Code H = Detention and Questioning of suspected terrorists

Stop and search (under section 1 of PACE)

The police must have reasonable grounds to believe a stolen good, offensive weapon, or article used for theft will be found on someone before conducting a stop and search.

Other Acts give the police more stop and search powers:

Section 2 of PACE is to do with police procedure: the police must give their name, state why the search is taking place, and record the stop and search (there were 1.3 million recorded stop and searches in 2009).

There is evidence ethnic minorities are more likely to be stopped and searched.


There are two types of arrest → arrest with a warrant and arrest without a warrant.

  • Arrest with a warrent: this is an arrest made under the authority of a warrant issued by a magistrate (given when information has been received by the magistrate that the person was involved or suspect of committing an offence).
  • Arrest without a warrant: such an arrest can be made, as stupulated under section 24 of PACE as amended by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, where 1) it is believed the name given by a person is not true; 2) the address given is not true; 3) prevent the person causing injury to him/herself, causing damage to property, or an offence against public decency; and 4) prevent prosecution being hindered by the disappearance of the person in question.

If arrested without warrant the police officer must make it clear why they are being arrested.


After being arrested, the person can be detained in a police station.

Under Part IV of PACE the police must either charge or release a person with or without bail within 24 hours (however, authorisation may be given to detain someone for up to 36 hours).

Longer detention periods may be given for other offences – some of which are said to be fairly draconian e.g. the Terrorism Bill (before becoming Act in 2006) attempted to extend detention period to 90 days without charge.

Once charged they must go to the Magistrates' Court to decide if the person should be released on bail or remanded in custody.

Part IV of PACE gives details on how those detained should be treated e.g. they should have access to legal advice and ensure their physical condition is maintained.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows the police to take fingerprint and DNA of those in detention (the DNA is put on a national DNA database, which currently holds 5% of the population's DNA records).

The Art of Getting a First in Law - ONLY Β£4.99

FOOL-PROOF methods of obtaining top grades

SECRETS your professors won't tell you and your peers don't know

INSIDER TIPS and tricks so you can spend less time studying and land the perfect job

We work really hard to provide you with incredible law notes for free...

The proceeds of this eBook helps us to run the site and keep the service FREE!



Questioning is crucial and often leads to a confession.

Two issues of confessions: 'induced' confessions and false confessions.

  • Induced Confessions: confessions made due to things police have said e.g. they will get early release on bail, less serious charge etc, if they confess.
  • False Confessions: confessions made due to the psychological pressure of the questioning. This was one reason why the Royal Commission on Criminal Evidence and Procedure was established in 1979.

Next Step

The police, after arresting, detaining, and questioning someone, may:

  • Take no further action;
  • Give an informal warning;
  • Issue a caution (adults) or warning (youth);
  • Issue a conditional caution;
  • Refer papers to prosecuting authorities to decide if they should by charged or not for the offence.

If charged with an offence it must be decided whether they should be released on bail or detained in custody.

  • In the majority of cases bail is granted.

The Trial Stage

Most trials do not make it past the Magistrates' Court (where all prosecutions begin) and most people plead guilty.

More serious indictable offences are forwarded to the Crown Court.

The functions of the court

There are two main functions of the court:

  1. Deal with the case (i.e. decide if the person is guilty or not and give a sentence).
  2. Ensure the trial is fair.

Deal with the case:

  • If the person pleads 'not guilty', the court will hear evidence, decide if they are guilty or not, and pass a sentence.
  • In the Magistrates' Court the magistrates do all of those functions, but in the Crown Court the finding of facts and deciding of guilt is done by a jury.
  • The prosecution must prove 'beyond reasonable doubt' the person is guilty.

Ensuring the fairness of the trial:

  • Fairness is important for the duo process model of criminal justice i.e. the idea that the criminal law exists to ensure 'justice' and emphasises fairness.

Magistrates' Courts

Magistrates' Courts depend on volunteers/lay persons.

The Magistrates' Court can 'commit' the case to the Crown Court if they believe there is a case for the defendant to answer.

From 2001 all indictable offences are sent to the Crown Court, so now committal proceedings only occur if an offence is triable either way and believed the case should be tried on indictment – in 2010, 97000 cases sent to Crown Court this way.

The Crown Court

There are 77 Crown Court centres, with the 'Old Bailey' being the central criminal court.

The court is divided into three tiers:

  • First tier courts: High Court judges, Circuit judges and recorders sit in first tier courts. In this tier, the full range of criminal offences are dealt with.
  • Second tier courts: same as first tier courts, though no civil work is conducted.
  • Third tier courts: presided by circuit judge or recorders.

Offences in the Crown Court fall under three categories:

  • Class 1: often heard by Hgh Court judges and are the most serious offences.
  • Class 2: offences include rape usually fall under this category and are often heard by a circuit judge.
  • Class 3: all other offences usually heard by a circuit judge or recorder.

The Crown Court also hears appeals from the decisions of the Magistrates' Court.

Issues in the criminal justice trial system

Charge and Plea Bargaining

The Criminal Justice System works hard to get the accused to plea guilty as it saves time/resources.

  • So encouraging a guilty plea will, often, reduce the punishment the accused will receive.
  • BUT, undue pressure may be put on the innocent to plead guilty this way.

Jury Trial

Some say juries are not suitable for long, complex cases as they are ordinary, lay people.

Part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 proposed having trial without jury, especially in cases where jury tampering was a threat.

There have been proposals to abolish the jury: this is quite unacceptable and would be too much of a big step from the 'duo process' to the 'crime control' model of criminal justice.

  • See the theories of criminal justice above.



  • Desert (retributive) theories: punishment should be proportionate to the crime.
  • Deterrence theories: prevent future offences by punishing the offender.
  • Rehabilitative theories: sentencing should be used to help/treat offenders.
  • Restorative (reparative) theories: the offender should make amends to the victim. This is used a lot with youth offenders.

Research often shows deterrence sentences don't really deter the person from offeding again, leading people to believe more focus should be on the rehabilitation of offenders.

The Post-trial stages

Criminal Appeals

In 2010, there were 13,800 appeals from the Magistrates’ Court to the Crown Court.

45% of those people had their conviction quashed or sentence varied.

In 2010, there were 7,250 appeals from the Crown Court to the Court of Appeal. 7% of those people had their convictions quashed and 56 retrials were ordered.

Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC)

Established in 1997 under Part 2 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995.

By 2012, the Criminal Case Review Commission had dealt with 14000 cases.

Only 480 of those cases were referred to the Court of Appeal and, of those, only 320 resulted in the conviction being quashed/sentence reduce.

Parole and the work of the parole board

Sentences can be reviewed by the parole board and they decide whether the sentence can be finished early.

14,000 cases were reviewed in 2010-11 by the Parole Board.

Exam Tip

Make sure you understand the hierarchical nature of the courts and how the appeals process works.

Some other helpful legal resources:

Law Application Masterclass - ONLY Β£9.99

Learn how to effortlessly land vacation schemes, training contracts, and pupillages by making your law applications awesome. This eBook is constructed by lawyers and recruiters from the world's leading law firms and barristers' chambers.

βœ… 60+ page eBook

βœ… Research Methods, Success Secrets, Tips, Tricks, and more!

βœ… Help keep Digestible Notes FREE

Course on the art of learning effectively, a reading masterclass