Magistrates’ courts are known for dealing with minor criminal court cases as well as many civil cases. They are the first port of call for all criminal cases; the more serious crimes are moved on to the Crown Court after initially passing through the magistrates’ courts. 95% of court cases are dealt with by the magistrates’ courts.
Magistrates’ courts can hear a range of court cases. Typical examples of criminal cases dealt with by the magistrates’ court are:
- road traffic offences
- handling stolen goods
- being drunk and disorderly
These are dealt with either by:
- Magistrates (or justices of the peace): Magistrates are unqualified and assisted by a legally-qualified court clerk. The magistrates are unpaid (apart from expenses).
- District judges: the district judges have legal qualifications and experience and will receive some payment. In Northern Ireland, cases are heard by paid magistrates only.
It is usual for a magistrate to hear cases that have arisen in the local area of the court. However, in some circumstances, a single trial can be held for a series of crimes committed in different areas. For example, a series of burglaries committed across a number of areas would be dealt with as one case in a local court close to one of the offences.
There is a limit for sentencing and charges in the magistrates’ courts, which is why court cases of a more severe nature are moved on to be dealt with by the Crown Court. The maximum sentence for imprisonment deliverable by the magistrates’ court is six months (or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence). The maximum fine deliverable by the court is £5,000. If court cases are sent to the Crown Court, a longer sentence or higher fine can be administered.
Civil Cases in the Magistrates’ Court
Magistrates deal with many civil issues as well as criminal court cases. Some of these issues could be:
- civil debts owed, i.e. council tax arrears, national insurance, income tax and VAT arrears
- partner/spouse issues like maintenance owed or having to remove a partner from the home
- welfare of children, i.e. adoption procedures or supervision orders.
Youth Court Cases
The youth court is a separate area within the magistrates’ court. It deals with young people between 10-17 years old who have committed minor criminal offences. Not all the same rules apply in regards to sentencing and charges in a youth court. Magistrates hearing trials in a youth court have specialised training and can issue a custodial sentence known as a Detention Training Order (DTO), which can apply for up to two years. If a child defendant has committed a crime for which an adult defendant would be sentenced for more than 14 years, the court case will be moved on to be dealt with by the Crown Court.