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It’s not all about juries: magistrates

video on magistrates
When we think of the criminal process, we often think about the Crown Court, and the case being heard by a judge and jury. But actually, only a very small proportion of cases get as far as a jury. There are various reasons for this. So, whenever a defendant pleads guilty, there is no need for a trial. And, more significantly for our purposes at this stage, it is only the offences which the law labels as being sufficiently serious which are eligible for trial by judge and jury in the Crown Court. The vast majority of criminal offences are tried not in the Crown Court, but in the magistrates court.
Magistrates – also referred to sometimes as Justices of the Peace – or JPs - generally sit in groups of three, and they deal with offences at the lower end of the scale of seriousness. Some of these offences are known as summary only offences – and can only be tried in the magistrates court; and some of the offences which magistrates try are known as offences triable either way.
Now, with either way offences, a defendant can choose to either be tried in the magistrates court - that’s if the magistrates are willing to retain the case and not to send it up to the Crown Court for trial - or the defendant can elect to be tried by judge and jury in the Crown Court. Although the offences which magistrates deal with are nominally less serious, they can nonetheless be quite significant. So magistrates can try some allegations of assault, of theft, of criminal damage. And while magistrates’ sentencing powers are limited, they are not insignificant – they can impose significant fines and community penalties and they can imprison offenders.
The things which are perhaps most interesting about magistrates are first, that they are unpaid volunteers who apply to do the role, and secondly, that they do not need to be trained as lawyers. Magistrates decide questions of fact – like a jury in the Crown Court, they will decide what weight they attach to the evidence they hear; and they also decide questions
of law: so they have to decide whether certain evidence is admissible; they have to ‘direct themselves’ on what the definition of an offence actually means. They get help on questions of law from a Legal Adviser, who sits with them in court, but ultimately the decisions are theirs. There are some interesting questions about the magistracy. For example, the time commitment involved in being a magistrate – they have to be available to sit for a certain number of sessions - may mean that some people are more likely than others to apply and to volunteer. There might also be concerns about whether ‘non-lawyers’ are best placed to make some of the decisions which magistrates are required to make.
But one response to that concern might be that one of the purposes of the magistracy – like juries – is to ensure public participation in criminal justice.

One reason that some people get irate about the attention given to juries is that relatively speaking, very few cases actually get to a jury.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that juries are not interesting – and in this course, Joe’s case involves an allegation which needs to be heard by a jury. But the fact is that over 90% of cases start and finish in the magistrates’ court. It is reasonable to describe magistrates as the workhorses of the criminal justice system, and without them, the system would grind to a halt. All criminal cases start before the magistrates. There are then various rules to be applied and various decisions taken about whether the case will continue there, or whether it will go up to the Crown Court to be heard by a judge and jury.

In this video I discuss magistrates and what they do. You might like to follow up the video by looking at the Ministry of Justice (government) guidance on becoming a magistrate and at the Magistrates Association website. The Magistrates Association is independent of government. What else can you find out there about who magistrates are and what they do? Although in this course we are focusing on criminal justice, you’ll see that magistrates have roles in a whole range of other contexts.

Discuss anything you find interesting about magistrates with your colleagues.

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From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

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