On the bench
Normally, magistrates sit as a bench of three in court; with the aim that the bench is as reflective of the local community as possible, with ideally a mix of gender, occupation, ethnicity etc.
Although all three magistrates have an equal responsibility in the decision making process, the presiding justice (in the middle) is the one that speaks on behalf of them all while in court. The magistrates who sit either side are called wingers. The presiding justice is an experienced magistrate who 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 over 90% of criminal cases, ranging from assault and criminal damage cases to drink driving and football-related 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.
Magistrates deal with a large number of traffic cases such as driving with no insurance, failing to stop at an accident, driving under the influence, etc. They also hear environmental cases, such as pollution, health and safety cases, cruelty to animals and many more unusual cases. Magistrates, who have been specifically trained, may also hear cases in the family court.
Magistrates are volunteers but they can claim travel and subsistence. 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 required 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 arise as they sit in court. Once magistrates have sat for 12 months and completed their consolidation, they are appraised regularly by other magistrates who have been 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 who sit on local Training, Approvals, Authorisations and Appraisals Committees and are responsible for identifying any training needs.
New magistrates are either appointed to sit in the adult court or the family court, although once appointed magistrates can apply to sit in the other jurisdiction. If appointed to sit in the adult court, a magistrate who has gained enough experience may decide to undertake more training to sit in the youth court as well. Magistrates can also apply to take on more responsibility, for example, to become a mentor or to sit with a judge on appeals in the crown court.