History of the magistracy

Magistrates have existed for over 650 years, with the role developing over time to become an essential part of today’s judiciary


“The Justices of the Peace did not make a sudden appearance upon the stage of history. Their story is one of gradual development.”

Sir Thomas Skyrme KCVO, CB, CBE, TD, JP, DL
Former Chairman of the Magistrates Association
Author of ‘History of the Justices of the Peace’

Justice of the Peace

Richard I first appointed ‘keepers of the peace’ in 1195, but it wasn’t until the 1361 Justice of the Peace Act came into effect under Edward III that the title ‘Justice of the Peace’ was born. The word ‘magistrate’ derives from the Middle English word magistrate, a ‘civil officer in charge of administrating laws’.

The Act ordered that every county should have keepers of the peace with the power to ‘restrain the Offenders, Rioters, and other Barators, and to pursue, arrest, take and chastise them according to their Trespass or Offence’.

The Development of the Magistracy

Over the next few centuries, magistrates resembled the first incarnation of local government with administrative duties including the maintenance of transport infrastructure such as highways and bridges as well as the regulation of weights and measures. These duties would later be taken on by elected local authorities. Before 1714, magistrates could also be approached by people legally recognised as ‘paupers’ for aid where it had not been provided by parish officials.

In the 18th century, magistrates were members of the landed gentry. As the need for a professional police force became apparent, so too did the need for a more diverse and professional magistracy. This led to the first paid professional magistrate being appointed in 1813. In 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act enabled boroughs to request the appointment of a paid or ‘stipendiary’ magistrate. Today magistrates are volunteers who sit in their local communities.

The powers of magistrates have also developed over the years, from hanging, whipping and transportation in the 1600s to the modern magistracy governed by the Sentencing Guidelines today.

Women Magistrates

Immediately after the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law, the first seven women were appointed as magistrates by the Lord Chancellor’s Office. These women (including Gertrude Tuckwell, who was involved with early MA training), drew up a list of 172 other women suitable for appointment to the magistracy. These women were appointed in July 1920, after which appointment was usually done by committees.

Councillor Ada Summers was the first woman to sit as a magistrate. While not one of the original seven, as Mayor of Stalybridge she became a magistrate ex officio. Other notable early female magistrates who helped to shape the magistracy include:

  • Margery Fry, secretary of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who was an early driving force of the MA
  • Margaret Wintringham, a Liberal Party Politician who was the second woman to take a seat in Parliament
  • Mavis Tate, a Conservative Party Politician who was a campaigner for British women’s rights
  • Geraldine Cadbury, who chaired the juvenile court in Birmingham and sat on a government committee

Today 56% of magistrates are female. You can read more about some of these remarkable women here.

For a thorough history of magistrates, you can read former MA Chairman Sir Thomas Skyrme’s book The History of the Justices of the Peace.