Court of Appeal: District judge had no power to refuse jurisdiction after accused had pleaded guilty
The Court of Appeal has ruled that a District Judge of the Magistrates’ Court did not have the power to refuse jurisdiction and commit an accused who had already pleaded guilty to the Crown Court.
Lord Justice Seamus Treacy stated that, in circumstances where the accused had already elected for summary prosecution and entered guilty pleas to the offences, it was clear from the express terms of the Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981 that the District Judge did not have the power to refuse jurisdiction.
Lisburn Magistrates’ Court
In April 2017, James McNamara was arrested and charged with 20 offences including burglary, theft, attempted theft, criminal damage and handling stolen goods – a mixture of offences which can be dealt with summarily, hybrid offences and indictable offences.
In May 2017 at Lisburn Magistrates’ Court, Mr McNamara’s solicitor applied to have him arraigned and sentenced. Mr McNamara entered guilty pleas for the indictable triable summarily offences and consented to be dealt with summarily, and entered guilty pleas to the remaining hybrid offences.
Having only the charge sheet prior to Mr McNamara being arraigned, the District Judge heard the facts and took the view that the offences, together with Mr McNamara’s record, meant that this was too serious a matter for the Magistrates’ Court, as the maximum sentence at this tier under the Theft Act (NI) 1969 is 12 months.
The District Judge informed the parties of her concern that she believed her powers were insufficient to deal with the case, and adjourned the matter to afford the prosecution and defence time to address her on her power to refuse jurisdiction in the Magistrates’ Court.
Both the prosecution and defence contended that the matter should remain in the Magistrates’ Court, stating that once a defendant had been convicted the power to reconsider a decision to deal summarily with Theft Act offences lapsed by virtue of article 46(2) of the Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981.
However, the District Judge stated that she had no opportunity to assess the case as the full facts of cases in the Magistrates’ Courts are not outlined in open court until a plea of guilty is entered.
The District Judge stated the following question for the opinion of the Court of Appeal:
“Was I correct in law that I had the power to refuse jurisdiction under Article 46(1) of the [1981 Order] in the circumstances whereby the appellant had elected for summary prosecution and had entered guilty pleas to the offences before the court?”
Court of Appeal
Delivering the judgment of the court, Lord Justice Treacy set out the power of the Magistrates’ Courts when dealing summarily with indictable offences and hybrid offences. He said that the provisions provide a clear statutory sequence so that where:
- An adult is charged with an indictable offence specified in schedule 2 to the Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981; and
- The District Judge, having regard to the matters set out in article 45(1)(b) of the 1 Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981 thinks it expedient to deal summarily with the charges; and
- In accordance with article 45(1)(c), the accused consents to be dealt with summarily, the District Judge may, subject to the provisions of article 45 and article 46, deal summarily with the charge and convict and sentence the accused whether upon the charge being read to him he pleads guilty or not guilty.
Lord Justice Treacy said that, in short, the District Judge must first appraise herself/himself “…of the case having regard to the matters set out in article 45(1)(b)(i)-(v) and, having done so, decide whether he thinks it expedient to deal summarily with the charge. After deciding that it is expedient to deal with the case summarily the accused, following the requisite notice in writing of his right to be tried with a jury, must consent to the matter being dealt with summarily”.
If the accused so consents the District Judge must then ask him “do you plead guilty or not guilty”.
Lord Justice Treacy said that a District Judge may reconsider his or her decision to deal summarily with an offence under schedule 2 at any time prior to convicting a defendant, pursuant to article 46(2) of the Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981.
He said that case law clarified that once the District Judge has pronounced a finding of guilt or accepted a plea of guilty, he or she cannot reconsider his decision to try summarily – but this is without prejudice to the power to allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty at any time before sentence.
Lord Justice Treacy stated that it was clear from the express terms of article 46(2) of the Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981 that once the issue of guilt had been determined, it was not open to the magistrate to reconsider the decision to deal with the schedule 2 offences summarily. He said the authorities and commentaries reinforced what was already plain from the express terms of the statutory provision, and stated that the prosecution and defence were correct to have submitted to the District Judge that she did not have the power to refuse jurisdiction under article 46(2) of the Magistrates’ Courts (NI) Order 1981.
Stating that District Judges have a plain duty to make sufficient enquiry into the facts of the case to satisfy themselves that, considering the facts, their powers of punishment are adequate, Lord Justice Treacy said the duty of sufficient inquiry must be discharged prior to conviction, otherwise the power to reconsider the decision to deal with the matter summarily will have lapsed by virtue of article 46(2). The prosecution has an obligation to bring any relevant matters to the attention of the District Judge so that she can discharge her obligation to make sufficient enquiry.
Answering the question stated in the negative, Lord Justice Treacy concluded that the District Judge of the Magistrates’ Court did not have the power to refuse jurisdiction where Mr McNamara had already elected for summary prosecution and had entered guilty pleas.
- by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
© Irish Legal News Ltd 2020