Lay Magistrates and District Judges

2 February 2017

Anyone outside the ranges of 18 to 65 years of age (with retirement at 70); anyone who is not of good character and personal standing; an undischarged bankrupt; anyone who, because of a disability, cannot carry out all of the duties of a lay justice; a serving member of Her Majesty’s Forces; a member of a police force or a traffic warden or any other occupation which might be seen to conflict with the role of a lay justice; and a close relative of a person who is already a lay justice on the same Bench. An individual may apply to become a lay justice and then be interviewed. The Advisory Committees conduct the interviews of would-be lay justices and decide whether the applicant is a suitable person.

Essentially, Adivisory Committees are made up, for the most part, of lay justices; but the Lord Chancellor now requires at least a third of the membership to consist of other local people who are not lay justices. In making their recommendations, Advisory Committees not only consider the personal suitability of candidates but also the number of vacancies and the need to ensure that the composition of each bench broadly reflects the community which it serves. If the Advisiory Committee deems an applicant suitable for appointment, he will be recommended to the Lord Chancellor who will then consider the candidate’s personal suitability for appointment. If approved, the candidate will then be appointed as a lay justice to a particular ‘local justice area’ under the ‘commission of the peace’.

Lay Magistrates and District Judges Essay Example

Importantly, section 10(3) Courts Act 2003 provides that ‘every lay justice is, by virtue of his office, capable of acting as such in any local justice area (whether or not he is assigned to it The major role of lay justices is in trying criminal cases where they will themselves decide on the innocence or guilt of the defendant. Over 95% of all criminal cases are dealt with in Magistrates Courts. Criminal offences are categorised into levels of seriousness . The least serious are known as summary offences, for example speeding, and may only be tried in a Magistrates Court. The next level are mid-range offences which are triable either in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court at the election of the defendant, and are known as either way offences. Examples here are driving whilst disqualified and theft.

The most serious offences are known as indictable-only offences – for example, rape and murder – and these offences can only be tried in the Crown Court. Their secondary role is to determine the mode (manner) of trial in either way offences i. e. whether summary or Crown Court. You see, it is often the case that a defendant who intends to plead not guilty will wish to be tried in a Magistrates Court rather than a Crown Court for a number of reasons, and it is then up to the court to decide which venue is most suitable after perhaps consulting the National Mode of Trial Guidelines . Thirdly, lay justices arrange for the committal of an accused to the Crown Court for trial in the case of indictable offences.

Now, committal proceedings have traditionally been the means by which a Magistrates Court determines whether there is sufficient evidence against an accused in respect of an indictable offence to justify sending him to the Crown Court to stand trial on indictment. They are held when an adult accused either comes before a Magistrates Court charged with an offence triable only on indictment, or comes before the court charged with an offence triable either way, the mode of trial having been determined in favour of trial on indictment. However, section 51 Crime and Disorder Act 1998 now provides that cases triable on indictment only will be sent immediately to the Crown Court without committal proceedings being held.

Lay justices also decide many civil matters, particularly in relation to family work. Specially selected and trained members of the Family Court Panels deal with a wide range of matters, most of which arise from the breakdown of marriage. Undoubtedly, the use of unpaid lay justices is cheap, not only because they are unpaid but also the cost of the trial itself is much less expensive than in the Crown Court. In 1999, the Home Office Research and Planning Unit estimated the average cost of a contested trial in the Magistrates’ Court at ? 1,500 and a guilty plea at ? 500. The comparative figures for the Crown Court were ? 13,500 and ? 2,500 respectively.

However, part of this difference is due to the fact that cases in the Crown Court are more complex and therefore likely to take longer; but even so, it is clear that the cost both to the Government and to defendants who pay for their own lawyer is much higher in the Crown Court. Lord Bingham, the former Lord Chief Justice, said that “the justices are chosen for their qualities of fairness, judgement and common sense, alert to the needs and concerns of the communities they serve and enabling local issues to be determined locally by local people. And, in the eyes of the public, they have one great advantage: that they are free of the habits of thought, speech and bearing which characterise professional lawyers and which most people find to a greater or lesser extent repellent.

The existence of 30,000 citizens distributed around the country, all with a sound, practical understanding of what the law is and how it works is, I think, a democratic jewel beyond price. ” Thus, obviously Lord Bingham thinks Lay magistrates have many advantages and maybe we should all agree as he was a former Lord Chief Justice. Lay magistrates have the advantages of: local knowledge – lay magistrates come from the local area and therefore have local knowledge which will help them make fairer decisions in court; lack of bias – having a bench of three magistrates avoids bias and gives balanced views; gender balance – lay magistrates come from a wider cross section of society than professional judges including a greater gender balance with 49% of lay magistrates being female.

A major area of concern is the variation in sentencing between different areas for the same type of offence. In 1995, Home Office figures revealed, for example, that whilst 70 per cent of those driving whilst disqualified were jailed in West Derbyshire, nobody went to prison for such an offence in Beverley in Humberside, Cirencester or Gloucester. Against this, there are the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines which identify each offence that can be dealt with in a Magistrates’ Court and the appropriate sentence. It is probably fair comment that lay justices tend to be biased in favour of the prosecution.

For example, when it comes to the word of a policeman as gainst that of an accused, it is not surprising that lay justices tend to believe the policeman. In fact, until 1952, Magistrates’ Courts were known as Police Courts. Figures tend to bear this out: there is a lower acquittal rate in Magistrates’ Courts than Crown Courts. The Criminal Justice Business Quarterly Report of November 2002 reported that in the year ending June 2002, 67% of not guilty pleas resulted in conviction as against 57% in the Crown Court. We can’t be certain, then, that defendants get a fair trial. After all, that is the whole purpose of the criminal justice system, and it could be argued that the statistics are against them. There are also concerns about efficiency.

Because they are not professional lawyers, it is said that lay magistrates take longer to analyse and understand cases. They are also more tolerant of verbose advocacy than a professional judge would be. So cases last longer, and there are three of them per case. Though they are not paid a fee for their services, the fact that the court has to be in session for longer is a great expense. It has also been argued that the middle classes are over represented on the bench as far too few working class people have the time to become Lay Magistrates. A District Judge will sit alone in the Magistrates Court. They are legally qualified and will decide whether a person is guilty or not and decide what sentence they should receive.

Sections 50-52 Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 set out new conditions of eligibility for judicial appointment. They are called ‘judicial-appointment eligibility conditions’ and there are two, as follows: (1) an individual has to hold a ‘relevant qualification’ and has to have ‘gained experience in law’; (2) a relevant qualification normally as a barrister or a solicitor for a specified minimum number of years is required. A person gains experience in law during this period if the period is one during which the person is engaged in ‘law-related activities’. Law related activities are laid out in section 52 and include the obvious such as practising as a lawyer; and the not so obvious such as teaching law.

Incidentally, the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides, for the first time, that Fellows of the Institute of Legal Executives are eligible for appointment to the judiciary. In April 2006, the selection process was transferred from the Lord Chancellor to the independent Judicial Appointments Commission which was set up by section 61 Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Section 63 Constitutional Reform Act 1995 provides that selection must be ‘solely on merit’ (and the applicant must be of ‘good character’). That said, section 64 provides that the ‘Commission … must have regard to the need to encourage diversity in the range of persons available for selection for appointments’ i. e. women and ethnic minorities. Section 88 requires the Judicial Appointments Commission to decide on and run a selection process.

In the course of doing so it must consult the Lord Chief Justice and another person who has held the office concerned or has relevant experience. The selection process starts with an open competition after an advertisement for a particular judicial vacancy appears in the national press and/or legal journals. Advertisements also appear on the Judicial Appointments Commission website. Applicants then fill in a form, a shortlist is created, references are sought, interviews are arranged and the best man or woman is then put forward to the Lord Chancellor for approval. All successful candidates to whatever judicial post are appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (on the advice of the Lord Chancellor) to The Queen.

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