Magistrates and Magistrates' Courts
Magistrates' courts are a key part of the criminal justice system and 95% of cases are completed there. In addition magistrates' courts deal with many civil cases e.g. family matters, liquor licensing and betting and gaming. For over 600 years Justices of the Peace have held courts in order to punish law breakers, resolve local disputes and keep order in the community.
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.
Magistrates are appointed by the Crown (retiring at the age of 70). They are not paid but may claim expenses and an allowance for loss of earnings. They come from all walks of life and do not usually have any legal qualifications. Qualified clerks advise them on the law. They are unpaid but receive travel and subsistence allowance. There are around 30,000 in England and Wales. They undergo a substantial amount of training supervised by the Judicial Studies Board.
In addition, there are also about 130 District Judges. District judges in magistrates' courts are required to have at least seven years experience as a Barrister or Solicitor and two years experience as a Deputy District Judge. They sit alone and deal with more complex or sensitive cases e.g. cases arising from Extradition Act, Fugitive Offenders Act and Serious Fraud. Until August 2000 these District Judges were known as Stipendiary Magistrates, but were renamed in order to recognise them as members of the professional judiciary
Magistrates cannot normally order sentences of imprisonment that exceed 6 months (or 12 months for consecutive sentences), or fines exceeding £5000. In cases triable either way (in either the magistrates' court or the Crown Court) the offender may be committed by the magistrates to the Crown Court for sentencing if a more severe sentence is thought necessary.