There is around 85 Bench Chairs in England and Wales. Bench Chairs are elected annually by all the magistrates on their bench, and serve for a maximum of three consecutive years.
In the courtroom
A bench consists of three magistrates sitting together in order to decide if the defendant is innocent or guilty: in other words, has the case been proved or not.
The magistrate who sits in the centre is the chair of that particular court and is also responsible for addressing the court on behalf of their colleagues. On either side of the chair sit the two ‘wingers’.
A Bench Chair will often, but not always, take the chair role in court: on other occasions, they will sit as a winger.
Other judicial business
Bench Chair act as ambassadors for their Bench at judicial and civic events. They are responsible for maintaining effective relationships with members of all the agencies who support their local justice area, such as Justices’ Issue Groups, the Area Judicial Forum and the Advisory Committee. They also have a commitment to carrying forward the views of their magistrates at these groups, and in any contact they may have with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Senior Presiding Judge, and other senior judiciary.
They work closely with the Justices’ Clerk and the Deputy Justices’ Clerk assigned to their Bench on a range of issues.
The Bench Chair is responsible for keeping the magistrates of their Bench informed on current changes to the justice system, changes to the way that the court operates, maintaining standards and dealing with pastoral matters. They also are consulted on the potential transfer of magistrates to another Bench.
Pastoral matters might include: making sure the various members feel that they are contributing to the work of the Bench; welcoming new magistrates; checking on the wellbeing of magistrates who are ill; and thanking magistrates who are retiring. Very occasionally, there are individual conduct issues to deal with.
This is covered in the main by the Magistrates in the Community group but Bench Chairs do become involved in many ways in their local communities as part of their ambassadorial role, including visits to societies, schools and faith groups.