Magistrates’ Court Justice System

Magistrates’ courts are an important part of the justice system in England and Wales and have a history that can be traced back over 600 years.

Magistrates’ courts handle 95% of court cases in England and deal with trials mainly of a criminal nature.

Cases heard in magistrates’ courts are dealt with in two ways. Either by:

  • magistrates (or justices of the peace)
  • district judges

Magistrates usually sit in a panel of three, accompanied by a legally-qualified court clerk. Collectively they are known as a bench. These individuals are usually assigned to local justice areas; however they all follow the Magistrates’ Court Act 2003. The magistrates on a bench are unpaid, although they do receive some funding for expenses (due to loss of earnings or travel). The magistrate members of the bench are not usually legally qualified, which is why they have a legally-qualified court clerk to assist them. There are approximately 30,000 magistrates within England and Wales.

District judges must have at least two years’ experience as a deputy district judge, along with seven years’ experience as a solicitor or/and barrister. The district judges deal with complex areas of law and sit on their own, as opposed to within a panel.

The magistrates’ court is the first court to attend when being charged with a criminal offence. Depending on the severity of the offence, the case could be dealt with by the magistrates’ court or moved on to the Crown Court. Magistrates’ courts deal with minor offences such as those which may result in fines of up to £5,000 and sentences of up to six months’ imprisonment.

Duty solicitors are present at all hearings in the magistrates’ court to represent defendants that have not appointed a solicitor of their own. In the more minor of offences defendants are expected to represent themselves.

Someone may be summonsed to a magistrates’ court:

  • in response to a summons
  • in custody (when the defendant has been detained in a police cell and not offered bail)
  • under bail (the defendant has been released prior to the court hearing).