Magistrates, or Justices of the Peace as they are also known, are judicial office holders who serve in Magistrates’ Courts throughout England and Wales. They are trained, unpaid members of their local community, who work part-time and deal with less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences.
There are around 14,000 people in England and Wales who volunteer their time to be a magistrate. They can be appointed from the age of 18 and retire at 70. The Senior Presiding Judge will not generally appoint anyone over 65, as there is a general expectation that magistrates will be able to sit for at least five years before retirement.
Magistrates do not require formal legal qualifications or training before being appointed. However candidates must demonstrate six ‘key qualities’ – Good Character; Commitment and Reliability; Social Awareness; Sound Judgement; Understanding and Communication; Maturity and Sound Temperament.
Once appointed, magistrates undertake mandatory training to develop the necessary skills to sit in court, and are supported in court by a trained legal advisor (also known as a Justices’ Clerk) to help guide them on points of law and procedure.
What do they do?
All magistrates sit in courts as panels of three, mixed in gender, age, ethnicity etc whenever possible to bring a broad experience of life to the bench. All three have equal decision-making powers but only one, the chair, will speak in court and preside over the proceedings. The two magistrates sitting either side are referred to as wingers.
Magistrates hear cases in the courts in their community. They can hear cases in the criminal court, the family court, or both. Magistrates deal with around 95% of all criminal cases and a substantial amount of non-criminal work. They can deal with crimes which, while not necessarily very serious in nature, can have the most widespread impact on communities; for example, anti-social behaviour and alcohol-related incidents. Magistrates’ courts are also the first stage in dealing with more serious crimes such as rape and murder, which are then referred on to the Crown Court.
As they gain experience, some magistrates go on to deal with cases involving defendants aged between 10 and under in the youth court. Magistrates may also sit with a judge in the Crown Court when an appeal is heard against a sentence handed down in the magistrates’ court.
Magistrates in the criminal court
Over 95 per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates’ court.
Magistrates hear less serious criminal cases including motoring offences, commit to higher courts serious cases such as rape and murder, consider bail applications, deal with fine enforcement and grant search warrant and right of entry applications. They may also consider cases where people have not paid their council tax, their vehicle excise licence or TV licences.
Most of the cases are brought to court by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) but there are other prosecution agencies such as RSPCA, Environment Agency, Department of Work and Pensions, English Nature etc.
Where a defendant pleads not guilty a trial will be held where the magistrates listen to, and sometimes see, evidence presented by both the prosecution and defence, decide on agreed facts and facts in dispute and consider whether the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Having found someone guilty or when someone has pleaded, the magistrates proceed to sentence using a structured decision making process and sentencing guidelines which set out the expected penalty for typical offences. They will also take note of case law and any practice directions from the higher courts and are advised in court by a legally qualified adviser.
For a single criminal offence committed by an adult, a magistrate’s sentencing powers include the imposition of fines, Community Payback orders, probation orders or a period of not more than six months in custody (a total of 12 months for multiple offences). Magistrates may also sit in the Crown Court with a judge to hear appeals from magistrates’ courts against conviction or sentence and proceedings on committal to the Crown Court for sentence.
Magistrates in the youth court
Magistrates are specially trained to sit in youth courts, where procedures are slightly more informal than in adult criminal courts – for example, magistrates will deliberately talk directly to young defendants, rather than always through their legal representative.
In criminal cases the youth court can deal with all offences committed by a juvenile (someone under 18 years old) except homicide, which has to be dealt with in a higher court. Sentences are quite different in that they specifically address the needs of young offenders. Young defendants should always be accompanied by a responsible adult when they appear in court unless they are mature enough to be considered independent of their parents.
Magistrates in civil matters
Although most magistrates deal with criminal work, they also decide many civil matters, particularly in relation to family work. Magistrates’ civil roles include dealing with cases such as non-payment of council tax.
Magistrates in Family Proceedings Court
Magistrates undergo extensive training before they sit in Family Proceedings Court where procedures are very different from the criminal courts; the court setting is much more informal and ideally takes place with parties seated around a large table. Cases – which can be both public and private – can be very emotional and upsetting for both parties.
There is usually a fair amount of reading as both parties file statements and reports.
How are they recruited?
Magistrates are recruited and selected by a network of 23 local advisory committees made up of serving magistrates and local non-magistrate members.
Members of the public can find out about non-magistrate member vacancies by enquiring direct to committees (contact details can be found online at GOV.UK) or by looking out for public advertisement of vacancies on the Cabinet Office’s public appointments website: www.publicappointments.gov.uk. These vacancies are sometimes also advertised in local free press publications. The advisory committees are Non-Departmental Public Bodies, membership of which is treated as a public appointment that is regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
The Lord Chief Justice is responsible in legislation for the appointment of magistrates. The Lord Chief Justice has delegated his power to appoint magistrates to the Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales who performs this function.
When applying to become a magistrate an application form is required, character references are sought, and two interviews are held before a recommendation to appoint an individual is made to the Senior Presiding Judge. The role is sought after and the selection process is rigorous, which means that not everyone who applies is recommended for appointment.
Apply to be a magistrate
Information about how to apply to be a magistrate, a standard application form and notes for guidance for applying to become a magistrate are available online at: www.gov.uk/magistrates.
The role of bench chair
Once appointed, magistrates are assigned to a local justice area (also known as a bench). Every year benches elect one of their magistrates to the role of bench chair. Bench chair act as ambassadors for their bench, maintaining effective relationships with the agencies which support the bench. They also act on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice by providing support and guidance to their magistrates and helping to maintain the high standards of conduct and service expected of magistrates.
The role of a Justices’ Clerk
May also be referred to as a legal advisor
As magistrates do not need to have legal qualifications, they are advised in court on matters of law, practice and procedure. This advice is provided by Justices’ Clerks and Assistant Justices’ Clerks.