Time limits in magistrates’ court
Criminal cases can be tried either in the Crown Court or in the magistrates’ courts. Most driving offences, including drink driving, drug driving, speeding, etc., can only be tried in the magistrates’ courts, these are called “summary only offences” and they are subject to strict time limits that govern how long prosecutors have to bring criminal charges against somebody.
Just a few years ago, the time limits were largely hypothetical procedural points that had little or no bearing on 99% of motoring cases. But, in recent years delays have built up and we have noticed that the police and prosecutors have slowly been coming closer and closer to the time limits when they finally decide to charge somebody with an offence. In recent weeks, we have had several cases brought at literally the last minute and we are now seeing cases charged outside of the time limit.
So, what is the time limit? Prosecutors must lay an information – which is 1980s legalise for charge somebody for an offence or summons them to attend court – within six months of the offence being committed.
What is the consequence of charging outside the time limit? Section 127 of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 orders magistrates not to try any case where the defendant was charged more than six months after the offence. Thus, once the six month deadline passes the magistrates court no longer have any jurisdiction to try the offence and so there is no way for a prosecutor to secure a conviction and the matter should be withdrawn.
How is the time limit calculated? In most cases, it will be pretty obvious whether a charge is brought more than six months after the offence but at the moment a lot of the charges we are seeing are just on the cusp of that time limit. Put simply, the time limit expires on the day in the subsequent month that bears the same number as the day of the earlier month, so if you were arrested for drink driving on the 26 May 2021, the last day a charge can be brought is the 26 November 2021; the prosecutor has the whole of the last day, right up to midnight, to bring the charge. If the offence comprises more than one incident, then the six month period runs from the date of the last incident that makes up the offending behaviour.
What happens if the defence and prosecutor disagree whether an offence is in time? The court will have to make a determination of whether they can hear the trial or not. It is for the prosecution to prove with evidence so that the court is sure that the charge was brought in time. If they cannot satisfy the court then the magistrates should decline jurisdiction, which would bring the prosecution to an end.
I received a summons more than six months after the alleged offence, what should I do? Speak to a solicitor is the best advice. The important question is whether the information was laid within the time limit, there is no requirement for the charge or summons to be served on you within six months although a considerable delay may raise questions about whether the charge was in fact in time.
If you have been accused of a motoring offence and would like to speak with an expert motoring law solicitor then call us on 020 8242 4440 or send us an email via our contact page and we’ll get back to you.