Magistrates – an Overview
Magistrates (also called Justices of the Peace) are unpaid volunteers and come from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations – from bus drivers to architects, pilots to mechanics, nursery nurses to retired people, unemployed to teachers. They are ordinary men and women with common sense and personal integrity. They are able to listen to all sides of an argument and can contribute to fair and reasonable decisions. You do not have to have any legal qualification.
Magistrates sit as one of a bench of three, including one who sits in the centre who has been trained to take the chair. They deal with a range of criminal cases such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences. Our members also sit in youth and family courts.
Ten quick facts about magistrates
Becoming a Magistrate
Although all three magistrates have an equal responsibility in the decision making process, the chairman (in the middle) is the one that speaks on behalf of them all. The magistrates who sit either side are called wingers. The chairman is usually the more experienced and has undertaken additional training to take on this role.
Magistrates listen very carefully to everything that everyone has to say in open court.
Magistrates have to decide if someone is guilty or innocent, whether a defendant should be allowed to have bail and the appropriate sentence when defendants either plead or are found guilty.
Magistrates hear over 90% of criminal cases ranging from assault and criminal damage cases to drink driving and football offences and many more. To see the full range of common offences dealt with in magistrates’ courts visit the Sentencing Council website to view the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines document.
Magistrates deal with a lot of traffic cases such as no insurance, failing to stop at an accident, defective tyres etc. They also hear environmental cases such as pollution, health and safety cases, cruelty to animals and many more unusual cases.
Magistrates may also hear civil cases, for example family matters and non-payment of council tax.
Magistrates are volunteers but they can claim travel and subsistence. They are required to do a minimum of 26 half day sittings (13 days) per year, more if they also sit in other courts such as family or youth courts. Many magistrates are able to undertake more and the average number of sittings per year is about 35 but they should not sit more than 70 times a year.
Magistrates do not sit exams nor do they have to be legally qualified. There is some training before an appointed magistrate sits in court but then they are allocated a mentor for the first year or so who can help them by explaining matters that arise as they sit in court. Once magistrates have sat for 12 months and have completed their consolidation they are appraised by other magistrates, who have been trained as appraisers.
All magistrates are expected to keep their knowledge up-to-date and to attend on-going training sessions. Completed appraisals are sent to a group of magistrates on the bench known as the Training and Development Committee who are responsible for any training needs.
All new magistrates sit in the adult court to start with. Once they have gained experience they may decide to undertake more training to sit in other courts such as youth or family or to take on more responsibility, for example, to become a mentor or to sit with a judge on appeals in the Crown Court
Applying to Become a Magistrate
Magistrates are members of the local community appointed by the Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales. Until 2013, they were appointed by the Lord Chancellor.
No formal qualifications are required but magistrates need intelligence, common sense, integrity and the capacity to act fairly. Membership should be widely spread throughout the area covered and drawn from all walks of life. Magistrates are typically recruited by a network of 47 local advisory committees, covering relevant geographical areas. They are made up serving magistrates and local non-magistrates.
All magistrates are carefully trained before sitting and continue to receive training throughout their service. Magistrates are unpaid volunteers but they may receive allowances to cover travelling expenses and subsistence.