Author: Syedur Rahman
12 January 2024
5 min read
Under UK law, there are three categories of criminal offence:
Offences are categorised based on the sentences that are imposed and the court that will hear the case.
In this article, we explain that indictable offences are the most serious type of offence and how they differ from the other categories of offence.
In the UK two types of courts hear cases, the Magistrates Court and the Crown Court. While a case may start in the Magistrates Court, the more serious cases are passed on to the Crown Court.
This is done because the Magistrates Court only has limited sentencing powers: it can impose bans, fines, community sentences, and up to six months in prison for an offence (or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence). But the Crown Court is able to hand down longer sentences and other stricter punishments.
As indictable offences are the most serious category of criminal offence they can only be dealt with in the Crown Court. A person charged with an indictable offence (the defendant) must first appear before the Magistrates Court but the case will be sent immediately to the Crown Court to be heard by a judge and jury. This is done using a process that is set out in Section 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1988.
The trial will be held in the Crown Court, with a jury deciding whether the defendant is guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, the sentence will be imposed on them by the Crown Court judge. The maximum sentences for indictable offences are longer than for summary and either way offences.
Indictable offences include;
The maximum sentence for many indictable offences is contained in the relevant law (also known as the legislation, statute or Act of Parliament) that created the offence. But some indictable offences are not covered by a statute. These are known as common law offences, which means they have been established as an offence through the judgement of the courts over the years.
Common law indictable offences include:
Indictable offences covered by statute include:
A summary offence is the least serious type of criminal offence. On their own, they can only be tried in a Magistrates Court. Cases in a Magistrates Court are usually heard by a District Judge sitting alone or by a bench of three magistrates.
But if the summary offence is in some way connected to an indictable offence (as described above) or an either way offence (see below) they can be dealt with in the Crown Court.
A summary offence normally carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment or a £5,000 fine. The Magistrates Court, however, can also give other punishments such as a ban or community service.
Summary offences include:
Some offences can be heard in either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court. These are called either way offences. Either way offences include:
The range of either way offences is very wide in terms of both the type of offence and the level of seriousness. The main factor that will decide which court will deal with an either way offence is the likely sentence that the defendant will face if they are found guilty.
To take an example, a theft case could involve the shoplifting of some low-value items or a large-operation that led to assets worth millions of pounds being taken. The shoplifting case would be heard in the Magistrates Court.
But the multi-million pound theft would be sent to the Crown Court as it would be considered an offence that required a bigger punishment than the six months’ imprisonment that magistrates can impose. For theft, the maximum sentence that can be imposed at Crown Court is seven years’ imprisonment.
A person charged with an either way offence must first appear before a Magistrates Court, where they will be asked to submit their plea. The Magistrates Court will hear the facts of the case and decide where the case should be allocated for trial or sentence in that court or at the Crown Court.
If a case involving an either way offence is referred to the Crown Court, the maximum penalty is whatever the maximum for that offence is by law. If the case is heard at Crown Court, a jury will decide whether the defendant is guilty and any sentence will be imposed by the judge.
A summary offence can only be tried (on its own) in a Magistrates Court. But if it is linked to an indictable offence or an either way offence, it can be dealt with in the Crown Court with that other offence.
An either way offence can be treated as an indictable offence. But this will depend on the nature and seriousness of the crime.
For example, a theft of some low-value items from a shop would be tried at Magistrates Court. But the theft of goods worth millions of pounds from a warehouse would be tried at Crown Court.
To take another example, if an assault involves no actual contact with the victim but they are put in fear of violence, the case will usually be dealt with at Magistrates Court. But if the assault leads to the victim suffering actual bodily harm, this is more likely to be dealt with by the Crown Court, where the maximum sentence is five years’ imprisonment.
Theft is an either way offence. It can be treated as an indictable offence if the circumstances are serious enough for it to have to be tried at the Crown Court. But if the theft is considered minor, it will be tried in the Magistrates court.
Fraud is an either way offence. The Fraud Act 2006 makes it possible for a person found guilty of fraud to be liable to a fine or imprisonment of up to six months if the case is heard at Magistrates Court. But a more serious case of fraud can be treated like an indictable offence and tried at Crown Court, where a person can be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Assault will only be treated as an indictable offence if it leads to the victim suffering actual or grievous bodily harm. It carries a maximum Crown Court penalty of five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
A breach of financial sanctions may be treated as a criminal offence. It can be treated as a summary offence. But it can also be treated as an indictable offence which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
Indictable offences are the most serious offences. They are a category of offence distinct from summary offences and either way offences. There are, however, situations (which we have outlined here) when indictable and summary offences can be linked and when either way offences can be treated as indictable offences. In these situations, much will depend on the circumstances of the case.
Syedur Rahman is known for his in-depth experience of serious fraud, white-collar crime and serious crime cases, as well as his expertise in worldwide asset tracing and recovery, international arbitration, civil recovery, cryptocurrency and high-stakes commercial disputes.