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Binding Rulings - Magistrates' Court

Principle

Magistrates' courts have the power to make binding rulings at a pre-trial hearing on:

  • any question as to the admissibility of evidence
  • any other question of law relating to the case concerned.

The powers are contained in section 8A of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980. Unless otherwise stated references to 'sections' in this guidance refer to the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.

There are no rules of court in the Criminal Procedure Rules that deal specifically with binding rulings. The Rules generally continue to apply, however, and in particular those relating to the overriding objective (Rule 1) and case management (Rule 3).

The purpose of binding rulings is to determine disputed evidential or legal issues at an early stage in the magistrates' court proceedings. The provisions are intended to enable preparation for trial and to restrict the opportunity for either party to re-argue the same point at the trial hearings.

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Definitions

Section 8A(1) defines a hearing as a pre-trial hearing if it:

  • concerns an information to be tried summarily
  • the defendant has pleaded not guilty
  • it occurs before the start of the trial.

Section 8A(2) defines the start of a summary trial as when the court:

  • begins to hear evidence from the prosecution or
  • begins to consider whether to exercise its powers to make a hospital order without convicting the accused (section 37(3) of the Mental Health Act 1983).

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Scope of Rulings

Admissibility of evidence

Rulings on admissibility of evidence fall into two categories:

  • evidence which is excluded or admitted by a legal rule
  • evidence that, while not offending against a legal rule, can be admitted or excluded as a matter of judicial discretion.

The first category will include evidence excluded under the hearsay rule, admissions admitted under section 10 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, admission of exhibits or schedules.

The second category includes confessions, exclusion of evidence under section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and defence applications to exclude evidence of bad character.

Any other question of law

Rulings on other questions of law are intended to resolve disputes on such matters as:

  • the form of the charge
  • the validity of the proceedings
  • applications for stay of proceedings for abuse of process
  • applications for special measures
  • compliance with disclosure obligations.

The categories above are not exhaustive.

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Witnesses

Prosecutors should consider carefully before making an application for a binding ruling if it would involve calling a witness at both the pre-trial hearing and again at the trial. There must be such a significant potential benefit to a case that it would be appropriate for a witness to have to give evidence twice.

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Procedure

The following conditions must be met before the court can make a binding ruling:

  • the court must ask an unrepresented defendant whether he/she wishes to be represented;
  • the court has given the parties an opportunity to be heard
  • it appears to the court that it is in the interests of justice to make the ruling.

A ruling may be made on application by any party to the case or of the court's own motion (section 8A(6)).

A binding ruling may be made at any stage prior to the commencement of the trial but will normally be made at the case progression hearing.

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Variation and Discharge

Once a ruling is made it has binding effect from the time it is made until the case against the accused (or if more than one, against each of them) is disposed of (section 8B(1)). A case is disposed of when the accused is acquitted or convicted, the prosecutor decides not to proceed with the case, or the information is dismissed (section 8B(2)).

A magistrates' court (not necessarily the same magistrates who made the ruling) has the power to vary or discharge the ruling of their own motion or upon application by any party (Section 8B(3)).

However, the magistrates' court can only vary or discharge a ruling where:

  • there has been a material change of circumstances since the ruling was made, or since the last application to vary or discharge was made
  • the court has given the parties an opportunity to make representations and
  • it appears to the court that it is in the interests of justice to do so.

Section 8B(3)(c) permits the court to discharge or vary a ruling of its own motion if it appears to be in the interests of justice. This is so even though the matter only comes to the court's attention through an application that a party ought not to have made: R v Clayton [1998] 8 Archbold News 3, C.A.

Any binding ruling is automatically discharged where:

  • the magistrates' court commits or sends the defendant to the Crown Court for trial for the offence charged in the information; or
  • a count charging the defendant with the offence is included in an indictment by virtue of section 40 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

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Reporting Restrictions

Section 8C deals with restrictions on the reporting of binding rulings.

No report of binding rulings may normally be published in England and Wales during the proceedings (section 8C(1)). There is no need for an application to be made preventing publication.

The magistrates' court has the power to lift or partially lift the automatic reporting restrictions (section 8C(4) or (5)) on application by one or more of the defendants if it considers it in the interests of justice to do so.

Section 8D creates a summary offence of publishing material in contravention of the restrictions. A prosecution requires the consent of the Attorney General.

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Review Considerations

When reviewing a case, prosecutors will need to:

  • consider whether there are any issues on which it would be desirable to seek a binding ruling in advance of the trial;
  • ensure that where such issues are identified, the advocate is fully instructed as to the nature and extent of the application;
  • anticipate defence applications for a binding ruling and advise the advocate on the approach to any such application;
  • ensure that, where a binding ruling is made, the file is clearly and accurately endorsed; and
  • ensure that an accurate record is made of any lifting of the automatic reporting restrictions.

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