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Magistrates - role
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Magistrates' role


  • Issue a search warrant or a warrant for arrest

2 –7

  • Sit in benches of between two and seven - three is the usual number.

Grant Bail

  • Grant bail or remand accused persons in custody pending trial.


Cases in the magistrates' courts are usually heard by a panel of three magistrates (Justices of the Peace) supported by a legally qualified Court Clerk.


The magistrates are collectively called a Bench and are assigned to a Local Justice Area but have a national jurisdiction pursuant to the Courts Act 2003.


Committal or transfer

Transfer accused for trial in Crown Court.


Full committal is to check there is sufficient evidence, otherwise to check paperwork and deal with bail and arrange date for appearance at Crown Court.


Even if the defendant agrees to be tried before the magistrate(s) [summarily], the magistrates may still transfer him for trial for an either-way offence if they believe the case raises difficult questions of law or that their sentencing powers are insufficient (if the defendant is convicted).


Studies in 1997 showed vast inconsistencies

  • 31% chance of being remanded in custody in Bournemouth,

  • 7% in Weymouth

  • 18% Southampton and 7% Portsmouth

  • Lambeth magistrates top with 70% remands in custody and only 30% of Crown Court defendants released on bail.

Summary offences either-way offences

  • Deal with virtually all motoring cases and "real criminal" cases, totalling more than two million cases a year.

Guilty pleas

  • 80% of defendants plead guilty

Local knowledge

  • Make use of their local knowledge in a way that a professional judge unfamiliar with the locality cannot.

Before sentence

Magistrates will call for a Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) from a probation officer; the report is confidential and contains recommendations as to sentence.  I also contains full details about a defendant's home background, his employment and attitude to his crime.


Their are national standards applicable to PSRs



6 months


Magistrates can impose 6 months custody for a single offence and up to 12 months when a defendant is convicted of two or more offences.


The maximum fine magistrates can impose is £5,000


The length of custody sentence is due to rise, following the Auld report and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in November 2006.


Variation in sentencing

  • Custodial sentence for an either-way offence varies by a factor of more than ten.

  • Jack Straw in November 1996 = Staffordshire Moorlands magistrates' court, where one in six either-way defendants end up with a prison sentence -v- Maidenhead, one in sixty-six.

  • For Crown Courts, the difference was a factor of only two (67 per cent in Hereford as against 38 per cent in Woolwich).

Civil jurisdiction

  • Magistrates courts also deal with civil actions for the non-payment of council tax and certain other taxes and utility bills,

  • Anti-social behaviour orders start life as a civil action before the magistrates.

Youth Courts

  • "Youth courts" to deal with young people accused of crime aged from 10 and up to 17 year olds. After the 18th birthday, cases are heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

  • But sometimes ‘near adults’ are sent to Magistrates’ Court for sentence.

Rape cases in Youth Court

From November 2007 it has been decided that when the defendant is very young the usual rule that a case of rape should not be heard in the Youth Court has been relaxed.


Family proceedings courts

  • "Family proceedings courts" to deal with a wide range of domestic issues including maintenance orders, residence orders, contact orders, care and supervision orders, and emergency protection measures


  • Licences for the sale of alcohol has been transferred from magistrates to Local Authorities in 2005.

  • Magistrates still deal with betting and gaming licences and some responsibility for casinos.

Appeals against sentence

  • Individual magistrates sit in the Crown Court with a Circuit Judge or Recorder to hear appeals from other magistrates' courts

  • Expected to accept the judge's rulings on matters of law, they have equal voting rights and two magistrates can outvote the judge on the verdict and/or the sentence.

Independence and immunity

  • Magistrates are expected to act fairly and impartially, and the rules of natural justice applicable to professional judges apply to lay magistrates too.

Magistrates’ and Clerks’ immunity

  • Immunity from suit under s.51 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 in respect of any official act or omission within their jurisdiction, and

  • s.52 grants similar immunity even for acts outside their jurisdiction unless it is shown they acted in bad faith.

  • Under ss.28A and 51(1) of the Supreme Court Act 1981, however, costs may be awarded against magistrates in certain circumstances.

Magistrates’ Courts procedure

Adversarial approach


  • The criminal justice system is based on an adversarial procedure that requires the person who accuses to prove the case.

  • The magistrates' role is to listen to the evidence and make the decision on that evidence without asking questions other than to clear up ambiguities.

Inquisitorial approach

  • At other stages of the court procedure, such as adjournments, mode of trial, bail and sentencing, the magistrates may adopt an inquisitorial approach and they are able to ask more questions and to probe more deeply into the matter before the court.

97% of all criminal cases

  • All criminal cases start in the Magistrates Court even the most serious, 97% of criminal cases are dealt with by the magistrates and the remaining 3% are tried in the Crown Court.

  • Appeals from decisions of the Magistrates Court are heard by the Crown Court.

  • Where a point of law only is involved by the High Court.

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