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What are valid reasons for not attending court in the UK?

Most defendants facing an upcoming criminal hearing experience a feeling of at least apprehension if not outright dread. If this is you, you may feel as though your life is on the line. Confronting a criminal prosecution is an anxiety-provoking time, and you’d be forgiven for wishing that you did not have to experience the stress of the court. But what happens if you do not turn up? Missing a criminal hearing without a good reason will land you in hot water. If you are aware of the court hearing but choose not to attend, you could face additional criminal charges resulting in a fine or a custodial sentence. Failure to appear could lead to a warrant being put out for your arrest, and you being remanded in custody. This article explains the rules around attendance at court, and the consequences if you do not appear.

What is a good reason not to go to court for your court hearing?

Illness is a legitimate reason not to attend court. However, judges can be sceptical of defendants who claim to be too unwell to attend court. In order to be taken seriously, you must follow the proper protocol if you are sick on your court date. If you do not do so, you risk a warrant being put out for your arrest and being taken into custody.

If you are too sick to attend court, first, inform your criminal defence solicitor as soon as possible. Your solicitor will ask you to provide a sick note from your doctor to prove that you are unwell. The sick note must contain the following information:

  • The date on which the medical practitioner examined you
  • The exact nature of your illness
  • Why your illness or ailment prevents you from attending court, e.g. if your wrist is in plaster cast, you could still attend, but if you have a contagious illness, the risk of infecting others would make it reasonable not to attend
  • When you will be likely to be well enough to attend court

If you are not sick enough to see a doctor, the court is unlikely to accept your absence. In addition, if the sick note relates to your capacity to work, rather than attend court, it won’t be taken as proof that you could not attend court. If you suffer from long term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, the court is unlikely to accept this as a reason not to attend court, especially if there is no clear prognosis for when you would be in a position to attend.

What happens if you don’t appear at court?

If you are a defendant who does not appear at court on your court date, the proceedings may go ahead in your absence. The court will consider whether it is in the interests of justice to proceed in your absence. If the court decides to proceed, this means that you could be found guilty without having the opportunity to make submissions to the court. This will almost certainly work against you.

Even if you intend to plead guilty, it is better to be present at court so that you have an opportunity to put forward a plea in mitigation. A plea in mitigation is where you tell the court factors that should be taken into account when arriving at your sentence, such as: the fact that you are the sole carer for dependent relatives; the fact that you have shown remorse; and the fact that you have taken steps to address your problematic behaviour, e.g. attempts to stop using drugs or alcohol.

If the court decides not to proceed in your absence, it could adjourn the court case and issue a warrant for your arrest. A warrant will only be issued where the offence is one for which you could receive a custodial prison sentence. This means that a warrant of arrest will not be issued for summary only offences.

In order for a warrant for your arrest to be issued, the court needs to be satisfied that you knew of the hearing date but chose not to attend. Therefore, it will need to be proved that either the court date was served upon you, or you were notified of the court date at the previous hearing. Once the warrant has been issued, the police could come looking for you at your home address, or you could be stopped in the street.

In addition to the above, you could face prosecution for the offence of ‘failing to attend court.’ This is a separate criminal offence that can be punishable by a fine, a prison sentence, or both.

What if I’m late for court?

Because of the serious consequences if you miss your court hearing, it is worthwhile making sure that you are on time on the day. Ensure that you arrive at court at least 30 minutes early.

Usually, your solicitor will have contacted you beforehand to make a plan for where in the court building and what time to meet. Sometimes, all defendants will be given the same time to attend, e.g. 9 am. This means that there may be other cases on the roll before yours, and you may have to wait for some time before your case is heard. Make sure you have made appropriate childcare arrangements and taken enough time off work. You can bring a friend or family member with you if you want.

What if I did not receive notice of my court date?

If you were unaware of the court date, and were convicted in your absence, you can apply to have the conviction set aside. You must do this within 21 days of becoming aware of your conviction.

What happens if a witness does not attend court?

Different rules apply if a witness (who could be the victim) does not attend your court hearing. If a witness is told to attend court, they are legally obliged to attend. The witness must attend regardless of whether they wish to continue with the case, and even if they feel that they do not have any relevant information to offer the court.

If the witness does not attend, the court can either adjourn the case and make an application for a witness summons or proceed in the witness’ absence. A witness’ failure to attend court when they have been served with a witness summons is a criminal offence. The witness could be arrested and charged with contempt of court. If this has happened to you, you should seek the advice of a criminal defence solicitor.

What is contempt of court?

Contempt of court is a criminal offence that occurs where a person unfairly influences or fails to cooperate with a court case. It can be defined as interference with the administration of justice.

In order to be convicted of this offence, the court must find, beyond reasonable doubt, that your action or omission created a real risk to the prejudice of the administration of justice, regardless of whether you actually interfered with the administration of justice. A witness who refuses to answer the court’s questions or does not attend a court hearing that they were aware of, could be charged with contempt of court.

Details of how this offence should be dealt with are set out in the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Contempt of court is punishable by up to 2 years in prison, a fine, or both. If the contempt of court offence is dealt with by the Magistrates’ Court, the maximum penalty is one month’s imprisonment, or a fine of up to £2,500.

Can a victim drop charges in a criminal case?

The victim does not get to choose whether a criminal case proceeds. Although the prosecution will rely upon a victim’s testimony to support their case, it is not up to the victim whether to continue with the case.

The decision regarding whether to prosecute ultimately lies with the prosecutor. The prosecutor must decide whether they are likely to succeed on the balance of probabilities and whether it is in the public interest to continue with the case.

For less serious crimes, the decision to discontinue a case can lie with the police. Whilst it is not up to the victim, the victim’s wishes will be taken into account by the police/CPS when they decide whether to proceed with the case. If a victim indicates that they do not wish to give evidence, they may become a ‘hostile’ witness, i.e. one who is not helpful to the prosecution. The prosecutor may feel that this makes it less likely that the case would succeed, or that it would not be in the public interest for the case to proceed.

Where to get further help?

If you are facing a prosecution, make sure that you have a strong legal team supporting you. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we understand the ins and outs of different courts. Our vast swathe of experience in the Greater London area enables us to provide tailored advice based on practical knowledge of the local courts and their judges. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.


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