What is a criminal proceeding and how does it work?

You don’t have to be the perpetrator of the crime, or even plan it, and you can still be directly affected by the criminal proceedings. All it takes is for someone to steal a bicycle of greater value and you are already part of it as a victim. While any role in the criminal process is unenviable, it is worthwhile for everyone involved to know the different stages of the process.

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Chapters of the article

A criminal trial is the process of determining whether an act that constitutes a crime has occurred . It is also a matter of finding out who committed it and, if convicted, deciding on the punishment. The course and the various stages of the proceedings are specified in the Code of Criminal Procedure.

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What are the stages of the criminal proceedings?

Within the framework of criminal proceedings we distinguish:

  • preliminary proceedings, which are conducted by the police authorities and the prosecutor’s office,
  • pre-trial proceedings, which take place before a court,
  • enforcement proceedings, which are carried out by the court in cooperation with, for example, the prison service or other institutions.

There are also other sub-stages, such as the preliminary hearing of the indictment, the main trial and the appeal proceedings, which will also be mentioned below.

Not all of the above stages need always occur. For example, the grounds for a preliminary hearing may not be met, or the defendant is acquitted on appeal and there is no reason for an enforcement procedure.

Who’s the perpetrator?

The first stage of criminal proceedings is the preliminary proceedings. The police and the public prosecutor’s office play a central role in this process. The first step is to establish whether the act that has taken place is actually a crime. It is necessary to distinguish misdemeanours from felonies, which may in some cases be similar in nature but are less socially dangerous (e.g. in the case of theft, the value of the stolen goods is less than CZK 10,000).

Thus, the police first investigate the matter (e.g. on the basis of a criminal complaint or on the basis of facts established by their own activities) and then, by means of a decision to initiate criminal proceedings, begin an investigation.

At this stage, evidence is taken, i.e. all the evidence that proves the guilt of the accused as well as the evidence that disproves it. Typically, for example, witnesses are interviewed, explanations are given, items are examined and expert reports are obtained.

Finally, a decision is made as to whether the suspicion of a crime against a particular person warrants an indictment. The public prosecutor is empowered to do so.

Tip: If you feel aggrieved by a person’s actions and want to make a criminal complaint, learn how to make it so that someone actually deals with it.

There is also a variant of the summary pre-trial procedure, the purpose of which is to simplify pre-trial proceedings in the case of less serious offences. If, for example, the perpetrator was caught directly in the act of theft and the law enforcement authorities have no doubt about his guilt, there is a way to speed up the whole procedure.

Preliminary proceedings may be concluded in a way other than by indictment, for example by referring the case to another authority (typically just to deal with an offence), by discontinuing the prosecution (if it is not proved that the act has happened) or by discontinuing the prosecution. At this stage, a ‘plea bargain‘ can also be negotiated between the accused and the prosecutor.

Sometimes it is years later that significant circumstances emerge which point the police to the right perpetrator. In such cases, it is important to consider whether the prosecution or criminal liability has already been time-barred. This occurs after the expiry of the so-called limitation period, which varies for different offences from three to thirty years.

Tip: You can read more about the statute of limitations in our next article.

Proceedings before the court


An indictment is sometimes confused in common parlance with a prosecution, but has nothing to do with it. In fact, the plaintiff who brings a suit can be any of us (e.g. when we are collecting a debt owed to us). An indictment can only be brought by a prosecutor in a criminal proceeding. Once an indictment is filed, we refer to the accused as the “defendant.”

Preliminary hearing of the indictment

This is a possible but not necessary part of criminal proceedings. Its purpose is to prevent unjustified indictments from being heard. At this stage, the guilt and punishment of the defendant is not decided, but only whether the indictment can be admitted to the main trial. The grounds for such a special procedure are determined by law. This may be the case, for example, where the indictment suffers from legal defects or where there are circumstances for discontinuing the prosecution. In some cases, it may be appropriate to agree on the guilt and punishment, and this institution may also be used for this purpose.

In practice, the motion for preliminary hearing is a popular tool for defence lawyers who seek to obtain for their clients that the court should not order a main trial. The preliminary hearing of the indictment has also been used in such media-famous cases as the leak of BIS wiretaps or probably the most media-famous case of our eastern neighbours, i.e. the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak. Here, four of the accused, including businessman Marian Kočner, uniformly refused to enter into a plea bargain during the preliminary hearing of the indictment, while the murder facilitator, who cooperated with the Slovak police during the criminal proceedings, entered into a plea bargain for 15 years in prison. He was facing up to 25 years.

The main trial

We now come to the central part of the criminal proceedings, where the guilt and sentence of the defendant are decided before the court. It may also decide on protective measures or damages.

From the media, we could get an idea of a trial full of fiery speeches, the exercise of every possible objection and the heartbreaking effect on the jury. But that is the domain of Anglo-Saxon law, or rather American soap operas. As a rule, trials in the Czech Republic are not that entertaining.

At the beginning of the trial, the indictment is read out, it is ascertained whether all the persons summoned have appeared and whether damages will be discussed. Then the evidence takes place, with various reports being presented, witnesses being questioned, substantive evidence being presented and anything else that may lead to the defendant being proven guilty.

What can or cannot be used as evidence in a given case is for the court to decide. If, for example, the evidence was obtained illegally, it could not be used in a criminal trial. This would be a fundamental violation of the right to a fair trial, which is a fundamental human right. In practice, however, this may paradoxically lead to a situation where the defendant’s guilt is evident, but due to the illegality of the evidence used, the defendant must be acquitted.

The question of the legality or illegality of the evidence was also at issue in the well-known case of abuse of military intelligence. During the criminal proceedings, the wiretaps presented were referred to as illegally ordered and therefore unusable as evidence, but the Supreme Court found their use justified.

At the end of the trial, closing arguments are given and the guilt of the defendant and his sentence are decided.

Appeal against the judgment

Thefiling of an appeal takes the proceedings to the next stage, which is an appeal. This is decided by the superior court, which either dismisses the appeal or upholds it. This is a so-called ordinary appeal, which is brought against a decision which has not yet become final.

In addition, there are also so-called extraordinary appeals, such as an appeal, a retrial or a complaint for infringement of the law. However, these are directed against final decisions and have relatively strict criteria for their use.

Enforcement proceedings

The last stage of criminal proceedings is the execution procedure. This is where the decision reached by the court is implemented. Typically, this may be the execution of a judgment imposing a custodial sentence.

Who pays for all this?

Unlike civil proceedings, the costs of criminal proceedings are borne by the state, with the exception of the costs of the victim, the accused and other interested parties. Only when the defendant has been found guilty does the law order him to pay part of the costs. These shall be paid in a lump sum.

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Author of the article

JUDr. Ondřej Preuss, Ph.D.

Ondřej is the attorney who came up with the idea of providing legal services online. He's been earning his living through legal services for more than 10 years. He especially likes to help clients who may have given up hope in solving their legal issues at work, for example with real estate transfers or copyright licenses.

  • Law, Ph.D, Pf UK in Prague
  • Law, L’université Nancy-II, Nancy
  • Law, Master’s degree (Mgr.), Pf UK in Prague
  • International Territorial Studies (Bc.), FSV UK in Prague

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