History of magistrates

Magistrates have officially existed for over 650 years; they have developed over that long period into the diverse office the stands today

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

 

The office of Justice of the Peace (JP) can trace its origins back to the reign of Richard I who first appointed ‘keepers of the peace’ to enforce the law. Justice of the Peace, as a title, came into existence during the reign of Edward III in 1361 with the Justice of the Peace Act.

The Act 1361 provided that every county should have keepers of the peace and that they have the “power to restrain the Offenders, Rioters, and other Barators, and to pursue, arrest, take and chastise them according to their Trespass or Offence”.

As the centuries passed, magistrates effectively became the first incarnation of local government, acquiring a range of administrative duties including the administration of the Poor Laws, the maintenance of transport infrastructure such as highways and bridges, and the regulation of weights and measures. An example of their duties, prior to 1714, was that magistrates could be approached, at any time, by people legally recognised as ‘paupers’ to appeal for aid if their parish officials had refused, or neglected, to provide any. During the 19th century, elected local authorities began to take over many of these duties, constituting what we see as modern local government today.

The powers of magistrates have varied significant over the years, from hanging, whipping and transportation in the 1600s through to the modern magistracy governed by the Sentencing Guidelines today. Throughout the 18th Century, magistrates were members of the landed gentry in their counties and as the need for a professional police force became ever more apparent, so too did the need for a more diverse and professional magistracy. This led to the appointment of the first paid professional magistrate in 1813. In 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act empowered boroughs to request the appointment of a paid ‘stipendiary’ magistrate. At first these stipendiary magistrates were not required to have any formal legal education or training but as time passed they were increasingly drawn from the barrister and solicitor professions.

The first female magistrate, Councillor Ada Summers JP, was appointed in 1919 when she became the Mayor of Stalybridge. Today the majority of magistrates are women.

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.