Who are they?
All magistrates sit in adult criminal courts as panels of three, mixed in gender, age and ethnicity whenever possible to bring a broad experience of life to the bench. All three members of the panel have equal decision-making powers but only one member, the chairman, speaks in court and presides over proceedings. A qualified legal adviser is available to the panel at all times.
Magistrates do not require legal training. However, all magistrates must undertake a compulsory programme of practical training which prepares them to sit in court.
Each magistrate should sit for at least 26 half-days each year.
What they do
Magistrates deal with over 95% of all criminal cases, either in the adult court, or in the youth court.
Magistrates hear less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences. They commit serious cases such as rape and murder to the higher courts, consider bail applications, deal with fine enforcement and grant search warrant and right of entry applications. Magistrates cannot normally order sentences of imprisonment that exceed 6 months (or 12 months for consecutive sentences) or fines exceeding £5,000.
Magistrates also decide many civil matters, particularly in relation to family work. When sitting in the Family Proceedings Court, magistrates deal with a range of issues affecting families and children.
Magistrates’ civil jurisdiction also involves the enforcement of financial penalties and orders such as those in respect of non-payment of council tax.
The Lord Chancellor appoints magistrates on the advice of local advisory committees. When applying to become a magistrate an application form must be filled in, references are taken up and at least one, usually two interviews are held before a decision is made.
Following the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 transitional arrangements for the appointment of magistrates have been put in place. In this interim period recommendations on the appointment of magistrates continue to be made by local advisory committees. These are then passed to the Lord Chief Justice for approval, before being submitted to the Lord Chancellor to make the appointment.
Local advisory committees try to meet the needs of local benches, in terms of the numbers required with the aim of maintaining a balance of gender, ethnic origin, geographical spread, occupation, age and social background.
The retirement age for magistrates is 70.
Magistrates are unpaid but may claim expenses and an allowance for loss of earnings.
Magistrates should wear clothing which provides a professional and dignified appearance in the court.
About the Magistracy leaflet
This leaflet gives an overview of the work of the magistracy. It has been produced by the Judicial Communications Office.
Topics summarised in the leaflet include:
- Who magistrates are
- Becoming a magistrate
- What magistrates do in the criminal, civil, family and youth jurisdictions
- Public access to the courts
- The judicial oath
The leaflet corrects some common misconceptions, especially in the field of sentencing, and increases awareness of the diversity of the magistracy.