The role of judges.

Shared with the kind permission of Ben Matthews, Student.

The judge is an important figure in the English trial system. The significance of the role arises from the nature of the trial process itself. In the English trial process the result of a case can hinge very largely on what happens during the trial. We do, after all, have an  adversarial system whereby legal representatives battle it out to help determine the truth about what may have happened.


This is because in our criminal justice system a great deal of emphasis is placed upon the evidence that needs to be heard by the  jury. Not all countries operate in the same way and have, instead, an inquisitorial system with investigating judges or magistrates. Where these systems operate, much of the work is done before trial.


The judge in an English trial plays many parts.


The judge supervises the conduct of the trial. It is of course up to the parties and their lawyers to present their cases whether civil or criminal but the judge is there to make sure that the rules are kept and that the trial flows as it should. A judge should be fair and impartial. A judge must mange the trial and ensure that procedures are followed but without interfering too much.


In civil cases the judge has to decide the result. Apart from rare libel cases juries have in practice disappeared from civil trials. The judge has become the one decision maker. He or she must decide who wins and who loses but also the amount of damages to award or how to distribute money or property in family cases or which parent should have custody of the children.


When giving judgement the judge may have to interpret and clarify the law when there are gaps in it or where it is unclear. Some would say that judges go further and actually create the law through the principles of  judicial precedent although this is dependent upon the level of the court in the court hierarchy.


The judge has sole responsibility for any legal issues that arise during the trial in particular about the admissibility of evidence. This is especially important in criminal trials where the case may turn on whether certain evidence can be put to the jury or not. A judge may have to make a number of legal rulings during the course of the trial.


In a criminal trial the judge has the important task of summing up the evidence for the jury. The  verdict is the sole decision of the jury but it is the judges duty to guide them on the law and to summarise impartially the key factual points given by the witnesses in their evidence. Cases have been won or lost on a judges summing up. Juries resent being told what verdict to reach and this would be grounds of appeal. Poor summing up may well be counterproductive.


Finally a judge has to pass sentence on defendants who have pleaded guilty or who have been convicted following a trial by a jury. The judge is confined by limits laid down by the law and within sentencing guidelines issued by the  Sentencing Council . The Court of Appeal also gives guidance about levels of sentencing.

Judges, Tribunals and Magistrates | About the judiciary



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