A very interesting question was raised by @greg_callus on Twitter this morning: are the decisions of the Crown Court binding on itself and the magistrates’ court? The question arose from Sweeney J’s “reading down” of the burden of proof for the defence of marital coercion in the Vicky Pryce case.
The leading school of thought on Twitter seems to be that the decisions of the Crown Court are not binding, either because the Crown Court does not belong to the strata of courts that have authority to bind itself and lower courts, or because the decisions of the Crown Court are not reported by the law reporters.
So, if the question is “are rulings of law made by the Crown Court binding on itself and the magistrates’ court?” – my answer would be “yes, sometimes – depending upon the nature of the proceedings the ruling relates to.”
If the ruling is made in relation to a trial on indictment, I suggest that the ruling is binding. If, however, the ruling is made in circumstances not relating to a trial on indictment, the ruling is not binding.
First of all, we need to make clear that the Crown Court is a single court. Even though it sits in a number of geographical sites, it is in fact a a single court just like the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.
The jurisdiction of the Crown Court is derived from, and governed by, sections 45-48 of the Senior Courts Act 1981. Section 45(1) of the 1981 Act provides that the “Crown Court shall be a superior court of record.” This goes a long way in supporting the notion that the decisions of the Crown Court may be binding.
The Crown Court has jurisdiction to hear trials on indictment and appeals from the magistrates’ court. Appeals against conviction or sentence arising from a trial on indictment can only be heard by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). Such appeals may not be heard by the High Court, because the outcome of a trial on indictment cannot be appealed by way of case stated. This means that where the Crown Court makes a ruling of law during the course of a trial on indictment (such as that made by Sweeney J in the Pryce case), that ruling of law may only be challenged in the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). Accordingly, and therefore, when the Crown Court makes such a ruling, it is exercising a jurisdiction equal or approximate to that of the High Court. In those circumstances, I say that the Crown Court ruling is binding on itself and the magistrates’ court as if that ruling had been made by the High Court, unless and until that ruling has been successfully challenged and reversed by the Court of Appeal.
However, rulings that are made by the Crown Court that do not relate to a trial on indictment do not carry binding force. Take a ruling made by the Crown Court when exercising its appellate capacity on an appeal from the magistrates’ court. The aggrieved party cannot challenge the outcome of the Crown Court’s decision in the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). They may only challenge the decision by way of case stated or by judicial review – in either case, the challenge can only be entertained in the first instance by the Divisional Court (which is an emanation of the High Court) or by the Administrative Court in the QBD of the High Court. Therefore, in those circumstances, the Crown Court cannot be said to be exercising a jurisdiction equal or approximate to that of the High Court, because if it was, the High Court (or the Divisional Court) would be an inappropriate appellate venue.
Therefore, on my analysis, Sweeney J’s reading down of the defence of marital coercion is binding on the Crown Court wherever it is sitting and upon the magistrates’ court whenever a case turning on materially similar facts to those in Pryce arise.
Ps – I’ll add links to this post a little bit later in the day. C