Who are they?
Magistrates (also known as justices of the peace) are 21,500 volunteer judicial office holders who serve in magistrates’ courts throughout England and Wales.
Magistrates can be appointed from the age of 18 and retire at 70. Magistrates do not require legal training or qualifications. 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 and are always supported in court by a trained legal advisor to guide them on points of law and procedure.
What do they do?
All magistrates begin their magisterial career in the adult court where they 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 18 in the youth court. Experienced magistrates can also undertake specialist training to deal with cases involving the welfare of children in the family 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.
All panels sitting in the Magistrates’ Court have one magistrate who is approved to sit as the chairman and he/she will be the member of the panel who speaks in open court. The chairman is flanked by magistrates who are known as “wingers”. All three magistrates carry equal weight in the decision-making process and play a full part in the discussions had in the magistrates’ retiring room
Magistrates are required to sit for at least 13 days/26 half-days each year (or 35 half-days if they also sit in the youth or family courts.)
How are they appointed?
Magistrates are recruited and selected by a network of 47 local advisory committees made up of serving magistrates and local non-magistrates. Members of the public can find out about non-magistrate vacancies by enquiring direct to committees (contact details can be found online at GOV.UK) or looking out for public adverts of vacancies (these are often to be found in local free press publications and on community notice boards in civic buildings including libraries). 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. Prior to October 2013, the Lord Chancellor appointed magistrates. Under the Crime and Courts Act 2013, and from 1 October 2013, the statutory power to appoint magistrates transferred to the Lord Chief Justice, who delegates the function to the Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales.
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.
The role of bench chairmen
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 chairman. Bench chairmen 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.