Many of us are familiar with the term Magistrate, but not what the role itself actually entails. Find out about the responsibilities of a Magistrate, as well as how to become one, and why you should consider this a valuable role to add to your legal CV.
What you may not realise about Magistrates is that they are in fact lay people. This means that they are not lawyers – they are volunteers and do not need to have any formal qualifications or legal training.
Magistrates, also known as ‘Justices of the Peace’, hear cases in either:
- The Magistrates’ court – All criminal cases start life in the magistrates’ court, even the most serious offences such as murder, and may be dealt with within this court or formally sent to the higher levels of the criminal court system. Within the magistrates’ court also sits the Youth Court.
- The Family court – In 2013, the Family Court was created to deal with matters such as divorce and domestic violence cases, as well as proceedings relating to both custody and care arrangements for children.
Magistrates usually sit in benches of three to hear cases, consisting of two ‘wingers’ and one chairperson, who is also known as the Presiding Judge. Whilst all three will contribute to the decision making within the case equally, it is the Presiding Judge who will speak on their behalf within court itself.
What do Magistrates do?
Magistrates listen carefully to all of the evidence that is given in court, before following structured decision-making processes (such as sentencing guidelines in criminal cases) and case law in order for them to reach a fair decision in each case. As Magistrates are not legally trained themselves, they are advised on points of law by a legal adviser who sits in court along with them. The role of a Magistrate can vary depending on the court and type of case they are presiding over.
For criminal cases, Magistrates deal with crimes such as:
- minor assaults
- motoring offences
- handling stolen goods
Magistrates can hand out punishments in such cases, including:
- unpaid work in the community
- sentencing to prison for up to 6 months (or up to 12 months for more than 1 crime)
For cases at Family Court, Magistrates hear cases about children. They can then decide to:
- arrange for a child to be taken into care or put up for adoption
- help separated parents make arrangements for their children
- enforce child maintenance orders
- make court orders to prevent domestic abuse
How do I become a Magistrate and what is required?
As mentioned above, Magistrates need no legal background or formal qualification as they are given the full training required to carry out the role, as well as support from a legal advisor when in court. The training you are required to complete adds up to approximately 21 hours and can be completed over a long weekend or short evening sessions over several weeks.
A Magistrate is a voluntary role, and to be eligible you must be aged between 18 and 65, with no serious criminal convictions. Magistrates must retire at 70 and are usually expected to serve for at least 5 years. There is also a requirement that Magistrates are able to hear clearly, with or without a hearing aid, in order to listen to a case.
It is advisable that, before applying, you visit your local court several times if possible. This will enable you to be sure you are serious about the role and confident that it is right for you. You then need to apply to the advisory committee for your local court by downloading and completing an application form and returning it to the committee for your area. You can check the list of advisory committees to find out if there are any vacancies in your area, as well as find more information about applying, here.
If successful in becoming a Magistrate, you will need to be in court for at least 13 days a year, which are usually full days and therefore it is best to discuss with your employer in advance of applying. That said, your employer must, by law, allow you reasonable time off work to serve as a magistrate, and, whilst Magistrates are not paid, many employers do allow their employees time off with pay. If you lose out on pay you can, however, claim an allowance at a set rate, as well as allowances for expenses.
How can being a Magistrate help my legal CV?
There are a number of ways that becoming a Magistrate can help your legal CV. For example, Magistrates are required to show the following characteristics:
- Good character
- Commitment and reliability
- Social awareness
- Sound judgement
- Understanding and communication
- Maturity and sound temperament
Therefore, if you have served, or are serving, as a Magistrate you are able to evidence that you possess the above qualities.
Becoming a Magistrate is also a clear demonstration of your interest in the law and the criminal justice system, and, as a voluntary role, it can be seen as an act of community service for the benefit of wider society, which is again an indicator of good character.
It is worth checking, however, that your chosen career path does not post a conflict of interest if you wish to remain a magistrate at the same time as working. There are a small number of roles that pose a conflict, for example, if you are a police officer you cannot sit in criminal courts.
Finally, being a Magistrate and playing an active part in court proceedings gives you valuable experience and enhances your first-hand understanding of how cases are dealt with. This in turn is then able to inform your decision when it comes to the area of law you would like to work in.