Criminal cases are tried in either the Magistrates Court or Crown Court. For criminal cases, the magistrates have a jurisdiction in a variety of matters and they try summary or minor offences such as shoplifting, minor assaults, driving offences etc and they are increasingly having to deal with triable either way offences, which cover theft, assault etc. because more pressure is being put on magistrates to do so rather than allow the defendant to elect a Crown Court jury instead. The further trials take place at the Magistrates Court where, the plea before venue and mode of trial is decided. The plea before venue is the first stage in deciding where the triable either way case will be dealt and the defendant is asked for a plea. Specially trained magistrates deal with young offenders aged 10 – 17 in the Youth Court, where the panel must include at least one man and one woman. This is held in private and the defendant’s name cannot be disclosed.
If the defendant pleads guilty, the case is automatically heard in the Magistrates Court although he/she can be sent to the Crown Court for a sentence if necessary. Mode of trial is the procedure where the defendant pleads not guilty and the decision of where the trial will take place is made. If the case goes to the Crown Court then the committal proceedings will be held and this is where the Magistrates take a preliminary look to check if there is enough evidence to send the case for trial. They also deal with the first hearing of indictable offences which are then sent to the Crown Court.
The pre-trial procedure, which is where the case is to be tried at the Magistrates Court, can be dealt with on the first hearing. However, there may be a need for an adjournment because the CPS may not have the information required for completing the case or possibly because the defendant wants to seek legal advice. Moreover, it could be that the defendant has pleaded guilty and the Magistrates want pre-sentence reports on him/her before deciding what sentence to impose in addition it will be decided if the defendant should be remanded on bail or in custody. The Magistrates also deal with side matters that connect to criminal cases such as deciding bail applications.
As regards civil matters, magistrates deal with unpaid utility bills, unpaid council tax and TV licences. They also deal with whether to grant alcohol and gambling licences to pubs, clubs, betting shops etc. Specially trained magistrates also deal with family cases in the Family Court. These deal with areas such as injunction orders for protection against violence, maintenance issues and adoption orders under the Children’s Act 1989.
Lay magistrates also sit at the Crown Court to hear appeals from the Magistrates court, where they form a panel with a qualified judge, usually a Circuit or a District Judge. Retirement age is normally 70 and they can be dismissed by the Lord Chancellor if they have a criminal conviction or misbehaviour of some form (about 10 are removed every year). Since magistrates are unpaid, except for travel and lunch expenses, it seems amazing that so many are prepared to give their time to voluntary work of this nature, but interest is still high in people wishing to fulfil their civic duties like this.
Apart from anything else lay people bring a non-legalistic approach to the resolution of disputes and free up the time of the professionals so that they are able to make better use of their time. When the lay magistrates sit one of them will be experienced and will act as a chairperson. They are assisted by a Clerk to the Justices who must be a barrister or a solicitor of at least 5 years standing. His or her role is to advice on points of law and procedure but should not attempt to make a decision for the justices or retire without them during their deliberations (other than to offer advice). Lay justices are not lawyers but, on appointment by the Lord Chancellor, undergo training to enable them to act judicially. A major criticism in the past has been the system of appointment of lay magistrates and that only those well established in the community would be able to put themselves forward for appointment by the Lord Chancellors Department, now called the Office for Constitutional Affairs.
There are many criticisms of the selection process. The majority of magistrates are in the forty-five to sixty-five age brackets. Ethnic minorities are under represented; only two percent of the bench are comprised of ethnic minorities. It is also true that the majority of magistrates are supporters of the Conservative party. These are all disadvantages because it does not represent a cross section of society. With this said, it may not be the selection procedure at fault but it may be due to the lack of awareness by younger people for example and also that there may not be enough advertising for potential magistrates.
Certainly the criminal justice system is already hard pressed to meet the demands on it and this would be truer if the 95% off all criminal trials dealt with were to be handled by legally trained judges. It is interesting to note the implications of the proposals for the abolition of the right of the defendant in triable either way offences to elect trial by jury. Thus may well increase the number of summary trials and where the prosecution and defence do not agree on the mode of trial, the matter will be referred to the magistrates. The involvement of lay magistrates is also long established and provides, if nothing else, quick and cheap justice. This should not however be an argument for extending their jurisdiction but rather ensuring that the system accords with and promotes the underlying principles of fairness and presumed innocence.
In recent years however, there has been a publicity drive on the qualification etc. needed with the intention of opening up the ranks to people from all walks of life. Unlike full-time judges, women are more equally represented accounting for roughly half of all lay magistrates. However, both working class and ethnic groups are underrepresented given that employers are not obliged to pay for time off work, especially as magistrates are required to attend at least 26 sessions per year. Lay magistrates in particular have the reputation of being ‘case hardened’ and also too easily swayed by police evidence. Other criticisms include the perception of them as ‘middle class’, ‘middle aged’ and ‘middle minded’ who have little in common with the young working class defendants who make up the majority of defendants. There is also frequent inconsistency in sentencing and in the granting of bail, that they may be unduly influenced by the clerk and that their workload is becoming too great and too complicated, especially in the family court, considering the inadequate training they receive.
However, this is countered by the view that, as members of the local community, they provide a wider cross-section on the bench than would be possible if you used professional judges only. Also, as cases can be dealt with more quickly, it is cheap, both for the government and for the defendant (9 times cheaper than a Crown Court trial). Magistrates perform many different roles and have both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Their powers in sentencing and imprisonment are limited, but the question must be asked, even if there are defects, what would be the alternative if lay justices were to be abolished.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
A good summary of the key points. However, the description and evaluation feel a little disjointed. Reference could also be made to the variable nature of training, inconsistency in sentencing and over-reliance on the clerk. There has also been found to be a prosecution bias. 3 Stars.