Who are they?
Many of the legal decisions made in England and Wales are not made by judges. They are made by ordinary people who work in all sorts of fields and have no previous connection to the legal profession. What they do have is a sense of fairness. They also have the ability to listen, make rational judgements and be proud representatives of their communities. These people are magistrates.
Magistrates, also known as Justices of the Peace, are individuals from all walks of life who are passionate about making a difference in their local communities. They volunteer for at least 13 days a year, plus training, to hear a variety of cases in our courts. Magistrates sit in the Magistrates’ courts, dealing with criminal and civil proceedings, or the Family Court, or both. The role is unpaid and many magistrates are employed alongside their role.
There are over 12,000 people in England and Wales who have volunteered their time to be a magistrate. They can be appointed from the age of 18 and retire at 75. The Senior Presiding Judge will not generally appoint anyone over 70, as there is a general expectation that magistrates will be able to sit for at least five years before retirement.
Individuals do not require any legal qualifications or prior training to become a magistrate. However, candidates must demonstrate the following five key attributes:
- Making fair, impartial and transparent decisions – magistrates must be decisive and able to form reasoned opinions that are unbiased, impartial and transparent by following a structured approach when deliberating. Magistrates also need to be able to assimilate large amounts of information and identify relevant issues
- Understanding and appreciating different perspectives – magistrates must be able to recognise and appreciate different perspectives, deal with others compassionately and show genuine understanding and empathy towards their situation. They also need awareness of and a willingness to understand key aspects of societal issues
- Communicating with sensitivity and respect – magistrates must be able to listen actively and attentively, clarify opinions and communicate confidently and sensitively within confidential boundaries. They also need to be able to adapt their communication style to match the situation and clearly articulate the rationale for the decisions they make.
- Showing self-awareness and being open to learning – magistrates must be open-minded, able to reflect and learn from other people’s perspectives, and adapt quickly to changes. They also need to be able to seize opportunities to learn and maintain their competence, as well as use effective strategies to maintain their personal wellbeing.
- Working and engaging with people professionally – magistrates must be approachable and dependable, able to instil trust and confidence, and work in a professional and efficient manner both independently and with others. They need to be able to encourage others to participate and engage them in decision-making, appropriately challenging any prejudice in themselves and others.
Applicants to the magistracy are also assessed on whether they are of good character. In the recruitment process, applicants are asked to disclose anything about themselves which may damage their credibility as a magistrate if it became known to the public. This is to ensure the public have confidence in the magistracy and its decision making.
Once appointed, magistrates undertake mandatory training to develop the necessary skills to sit in court, and are supported in court by a legally qualified justice’s adviser to help guide them on points of law, procedure, and the sentencing structure.
Hear from sitting magistrates on who magistrates are, what they believe is important for potential new magistrates to consider, and what qualities are required:
Interested in finding out more about how you could be a magistrate? Go to our ‘Apply to be a magistrate’ section.
What do they do?
Magistrates hear cases affecting their community in their local courts. They can hear cases in the Magistrates’ courts, dealing with criminal and civil proceedings, or the Family Court, or both.
Magistrates typically sit in courts in groups, known as benches, of 2 or 3. All 3 magistrates have equal decision-making powers but only one, the presiding justice, will speak in court and preside over the proceedings. The two magistrates sitting either side are referred to as wingers.
As they gain experience, some magistrates go on to deal with cases involving defendants aged between 10 and under 18 in the youth court. Magistrates may also sit with a judge in the Crown Court when an appeal is heard against a conviction or a sentence determined in the magistrates’ court.
Did you know… many magistrates work full-time alongside their role as a magistrate. Hear about what some of our magistrates do in the video below:
You can find out more about how the role can benefit you and your employer.
Criminal proceedings in Magistrates’ courts
Almost all criminal court cases start in a magistrates’ court, and around 95% of them are completed there. As a magistrate in the criminal court, you’ll help to decide upon the next course of action. Cases can include domestic abuse, drug offences, motoring offences, theft, assaults, criminal damage and public order offences.
Magistrates in the criminal court will listen to, and consider, all the evidence provided by the court with the rest of their bench. If a defendant has pleaded or been found guilty, they can impose fines, community penalties (including unpaid work or addiction rehabilitation) and prison sentences of up to 12 months for a single offence. Magistrates pass more serious offences on to the Crown Court, if a defendant has pleaded or been found guilty for sentencing, or for a full trial with a judge and jury.
To make these decisions, magistrate work together and have support from a legal advisor who ensures they always follow the correct guidelines and procedures. Before applying to become a magistrate in the criminal court, you must visit a magistrates’ court at least twice to observe the proceedings. You can find more information on the Magistrate’s website here.
Civil proceedings in magistrates’ courts
With about 5 million cases a year, the civil jurisdiction of magistrates’ courts is the largest in terms of volume in the court system. Most of the cases involve the enforcement of civic financial liabilities: council tax, rates, child maintenance and the like. However magistrates are also responsible for appeals against the decisions of other bodies, for example licensing decisions, or the registration of security officers. Police forces apply to magistrates’ courts for civil behaviour orders, for example sexual harm prevention orders, football banning orders and anti-social behaviour injunctions against children under 18.
Magistrates in the Family court
Magistrates in the family court hear a variety of different issues which can involve making decisions that affect vulnerable children, support separated parents in making arrangements for their children, enforce child maintenance orders and help prevent domestic abuse. It is an important role in which they can have a significant impact on a child’s life and welfare, and a family’s future. Procedures are very different from the criminal courts; the court setting is much less formal and ideally takes place with parties seated around a large table.
It is a role that allows magistrates to gain an insight into a range of child welfare issues and enables them to make a tangible difference to the community as a whole. It can mean dealing with some difficult emotional situations, but magistrates in the family court have support and dedicated training to help them develop the skills they need to handle them effectively.
There is usually a fair amount of reading as both parties file statements and reports.
Magistrates always provide written reasons and can be assisted with extra information provided by a childrens’ guardian, usually a specialised social worker.
As Family Court cases are heard in private, you will not be able to visit a court beforehand to observe proceedings if you wish to apply. Instead, you should familiarise yourself with publicly available information about the family court to ensure that the role is right for you. If this role interests you, we have further information about working as a family court magistrate.
Magistrates in the youth court
Magistrates are specially trained to sit in youth courts, where procedures are slightly less formal 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 youth (someone under 18 years old) except homicide, which has to be dealt with in a higher court, and civil proceedings. 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.
Information about how to apply to be a magistrate, guidance, including frequently asked questions, and a registration form can be found online at Magistrates Recruitment – Volunteer as a magistrate.
To hear sitting magistrates talk about what made them apply watch the video below:
Hear advice from sitting magistrates to those thinking of applying:
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 Chairs act as ambassadors, 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.
Learn more about the role of Bench Chairs on our Bench Chair page.
The role of a justice’s legal adviser
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 professional lawyers authorised by the Lord Chief Justice, called justices’ legal advisers (or legal advisers for short).
Legal advisers are managed by senior legal advisers. Each of the seven regions of HMCTS has a Head of Legal Operations who is authorised by the Lord Chief Justice to direct legal advisers, and a larger number of Senior Legal Managers.
Heads of Legal Operations and Senior Legal Managers are also responsible for supporting the recruitment and training process, and giving support to bench chairs and other magistrates in their role.