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Adult Justice System

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What are the different stages of the criminal justice system?

Pre court

As an adult, police arrest is usually the first stage of the criminal justice process, where the police carry out initial questioning of someone suspected of a crime. The police follow set rules on the way they can question a person suspected of committing a crime. On arrival at a police station, the person who has been arrested should have their rights upon arrival explained to them by the custody officer. This includes the right to make a phone call and access to legal advice (see – Being arrested: your rights).

After being held for questioning, the police may decide to release the person without charge, give them a caution or place them on police bail. The police may decide not to grant bail meaning they have to remain in police custody for a short period of time whilst the police decide whether or not to bring charges. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is the independent authority responsible for advising the police on cases for possible prosecution.

(Source: After arrest | Prisoners’ Families Helpline)


If charges are brought against a person, they become a defendant in court. Almost all criminal cases begin at a magistrates’ court. Whether they end there or are sent to the Crown Court depends on the seriousness of the crime. If a person either pleads guilty or are found guilty by magistrates or, for more serious offences, a jury, they become an offender and will be sentenced by the court. There are five purposes of sentencing, as set out in s.57 of the Sentencing Code (see Sentencing Council – how sentencing works). A Pre Sentence Report prepared by a Probation Officer assists the court when they may be considering a community or custodial sentence. 

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service are responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales. Victim Support provides a list of key organisations and who’s who within the Court processes (see Victims and Witnesses).

Victim Support provides an overview of what to expect for victims and witnesses going to Court. PACT / Prisoners Families Helpline provides an overview of going to court for someone charged with a crime.

Post Court

Community sentences and ‘community orders’ are imposed by courts, in line with sentencing guidelines, where they believe that this will be more productive than a prison sentence. They enable people to undertake rehabilitative programmes or work in the community whilst being supervised by the Probation Service in Wales, which is part of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service. If a community sentence is not suitable, for example, due to the seriousness of the offence, different types of prison sentences exist, including determinate sentences, extended sentences, and life sentences (read more at Prisoners’ Families). Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service are also members of Community Safety Partnerships, which have a responsibility to work together to reduce reoffending (see Introduction to Community Safety).

How offenders are sentenced in England and Wales - Youtube

Useful Links

College of Policing Guidance – Prosecution and case management

Visit the Website

The Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) is a national charity that provides support to prisoners, people with convictions, and their families.

Visit the Website

Support services are also provided in Wales by:

Clinks supports the voice of the voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system.

Visit the Website

Several House of Commons Library research briefings provide useful overviews of roles, responsibilities, and aspects of the criminal justice system:

The Sentencing Council for England and Wales promotes greater transparency and consistency in sentencing, while maintaining the independence of the judiciary. Its primary role of the Council is to issue guidelines on sentencing.

Visit the Website

UK Government: Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service

Visit the Website

UK Government: A Smarter Approach to Sentencing.

Visit the Website

List of prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales, including how to arrange visits and how to stay in touch with prisoners.

View the list


Help and Support

For victims, families and concerned people

Nacro has a dedicated Resettlement Plus Helpline which offers information and advice to ex-offenders, serving prisoners, their families and friends, and to organisations working with them. Call 0300 123 1999​.

National Prisoners’ Families Helpline website for England and Wales offers support for families who have a loved one in contact with the criminal justice system. Call 0808 808 2003 Monday to Friday 9am – 8pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am – 3pm.

St Giles Trust runs a range of services designed to help ex-offenders with employment, support, community based training, and housing/ emergency accommodation. Call 020 7708 8000.

Unlock is an independent charity for people with convictions who are dealing with the effects of having a criminal record. They give advice and support across areas such as how to disclose to employers, criminal record checks, getting insurance and travelling abroad through their confidential peer-run helpline. Call 01634 247350.

Victim Support’s My Support Space is a free online resource containing interactive guides (including journey to justice) to help you move forward after crime. Also see Victims and Witnesses.

YMCA work in partnership with prisons and probation services to support young offenders with citizenship and training opportunities pre-release. Call 0207 186 9500.

Support services are also provided in Wales by Nelson Trust; The Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact); Safer Wales; St Giles Cymru; and Prison Link (Pobl).