On the bench
Magistrates sit as benches of three in court; the panels will be as representative of the community as possible so there will be a mix of gender, occupation, ethnicity etc.
Although all three magistrates have an equal responsibility in the decision making process, the chairman (in the middle) is the one that speaks on behalf of them all. The magistrates who sit either side are called wingers. The chairman usually is the more experienced and has undertaken additional training to take on this role.
Magistrates listen very carefully to everything that everyone has to say in open court.
Magistrates have to decide if someone is guilty or innocent, whether a defendant should be allowed to have bail and the appropriate sentence when defendants either plead or are found guilty.
Magistrates hear about 95% of criminal cases ranging from the lesser serious assault and criminal damage cases to drink driving and football offences and many more. To see the full range of common offences dealt with in magistrates’ courts visit the Sentencing Council website to view the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines document.
Magistrates deal with lots of traffic cases such as no insurance, failing to stop at an accident, defective tyres etc. They also hear environmental cases such as pollution, health and safety cases, cruelty to animals and many more unusual cases such as those in Costing the Earth.
Magistrates may also hear civil cases – such as non-payment of council tax.
Magistrates are volunteers but they can claim travel and subsistance. They are required to do a minimum of 26 half day sittings (13 days) per year, more if they also sit in other courts such as family or youth courts. Many magistrates are able to undertake more and the average number of sittings per year is about 35 but they should not sit more than 70 times a year.
Magistrates do not sit exams nor do they have to be legally qualified. There is some training before an appointed magistrate sits in court but then they are allocated a mentor for the first year or so who can help them by explaining matters that crop up as they sit in court. Having completed consolidation training about 18 months after starting to sit, they are appraised by other magistrates, trained as appraisers.
All magistrates are expected to keep their knowledge up to date and to attend on-going training sessions. Completed appraisals are sent to a group of magistrates on the bench known as the Training and Development Committee who are responsible for any training needs.
All new magistrates sit in the adult court to start with. Once they have gained experience they may decide to undertake more training to sit in other courts such as youth or family or to take on more responsibility – for example, to become a mentor or to sit with a judge on appeals in the Crown Court.