Steps to follow
If you’ve been accused of a crime the police will no doubt want to talk to you about it. If the offence you’ve been accused of carries a power of arrest (eg theft, burglary and most assaults), police can take you to a police station and question you about the matter in a recorded interview.
If you’re arrested, you’re given certain rights which protect you against unreasonable treatment, including the right to know why you have been arrested.
At the police station, before any interview begins, you should be informed of your rights which include: the right to see a solicitor of your choice free of charge and obtain legal advice from them; the right, if you’re under 17, to have an "appropriate adult" with you during any interview; the right to have someone informed as to your whereabouts; and the right to read a copy of the Codes of practice, which outlines the processes the police should follow in such circumstances. These rights should be laid out for you in writing.
If a police officer believes you have committed an offence, s/he must caution you by explaining that it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.
As outlined in the caution, you don’t have to answer questions from the police (although you are obliged to provide your name and address). If the case goes to trial though, the magistrates or jury will be told of your insistence on remaining silent and this might strengthen the case against you. If you fail to answer questions in court, the magistrates or jury are allowed to take this into account in deciding whether you’re guilty.
When you’re being questioned you’re entitled to have the solicitor sitting in with you, giving you advice; you should be given regular breaks for food; your cell and the interview room must be clean and warm enough; and the police are not allowed to follow a line of questioning which puts undue pressure on you. If you’re deaf you’re entitled to have a signer present; if you don’t understand English well you can ask for an interpreter to be there. The interview will usually be recorded - if it’s not, notes should be made by the officer present. You should be allowed to see these notes and sign them if you agree they are a fair record of what was said.
Police have the right to take your fingerprints if they believe you have been involved in crime. They can also take your photograph, but, unless you are charged or cautioned, you have to give your consent for this.
If the police are looking into a very serious offence they can, with the authorisation of a senior officer, postpone access to a solicitor if it is felt that talking to a solicitor might interfere with the evidence, alert other suspects or set-back the recovery of stolen property
Once the questioning is finished, the police will decide whether to release you without charge (the case will then be dropped), release you on bail while further enquiries are made, charge you, or send the papers about your case to the Crown Prosecution Service so that they can make the decision as to whether to charge you or not.
Alternatively, the police may decide to issue you with a formal caution. This means you do not have to go to court but you do have to admit your guilt for it to be given.
If the police/ CPS decide to charge you, you must be brought before a magistrates' court. The court will decide whether you should be remanded in custody (held in jail) or be given bail. If bail is granted, there may be conditions attached (for example, you may have to stay at a certain address, report to a local police station at set times, or find someone to give a financial guarantee that you’ll turn up in court).
If you’re charged with murder, attempted murder, rape or attempted rape you will not be allowed bail if you already has a conviction for one of these offences. Courts can also deny you bail if you were already on bail when the offence was committed.
If you are charged, find yourself a criminal solicitor who will prepare your defence and if necessary represent you in court (their advice may be free if the solicitor in question has a contract with the Legal Services Commission or a Public Defender Service office).
If you haven’t sorted out a solicitor to represent you beforehand, you can ask to see the duty solicitor at the court. If there is a risk that you could go to prison, the duty solicitor will be able to represent you. At your first appearance in court you’ll usually be asked if you want to plead 'guilty' or 'not guilty'. If you plead guilty, the court may pass sentence (or adjourn for a set time while reports are prepared about you). If you plead 'not guilty' a date for the trial will be set.
Depending on the seriousness of the crime you’re accused of, you’ll either be tried in the magistrates’ court or in the Crown Court. In the former, the magistrates or district judge decide on your guilt, while in the latter a jury will decide on the verdict. Both courts will decide based on the evidence they hear from the prosecution and your defence team.
If you’re found not guilty, you’re free to go. If you’re found guilty you may: receive your sentence straight away; be remanded in custody and told to come back to court for sentencing; or released on bail to return to court for sentencing. Types of sentence available include: discharges; fines; community punishments; prison.
If you want to appeal against your sentence or your conviction, talk to your solicitor who’ll be able to advise you on the best strategy to follow.
What to watch out for
Unless you are arrested under the Terrorism Act (which allows you to be detained by police without charge for 28 days), you cannot usually be held at the police station for more than 24 hours without being charged or released. If the offence you are accused of is sufficiently serious, a senior police officer can authorise your detention for a further 12 hours. This can be extended up to a total of 96 hours, but only with the approval of a magistrates' court.
Solicitor’s top tip
Once you’ve provided the police with your name and address, it’s probably better to stay quiet and refuse to answer any questions until you have had the chance to speak to a solicitor. S/he can give you the heads up on what’s safe to discuss and what isn’t. You’re not obliged to say anything until you’ve taken legal advice.
Getting legal advice
Need help finding a criminal defence solicitor near you? LawyerLocator covers all of the UK from major cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham to small towns in the countryside.
Her Majesty's Courts Service
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Association of Police Authorities
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Crown Prosecution Service
Criminal justice process
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