Describe the selection and training of lay magistrates

There are about 30,000 lay magistrates sitting as part-time judges in the Magistrates’ Courts. They are alternatively known as Justices of the Peace and their origins go back to 1195 when Richard I appointed ‘keepers of the peace’.

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Before considering the selection and training of lay magistrates it might be worth noting something about the part they play in the decision making process in our courts.

There are about 30,000 lay magistrates sitting as part-time judges in the Magistrates’ Courts.  They are unpaid volunteers and are sometimes referred to as Justices of the Peace and their origins go back to 1195 when Richard I appointed ‘keepers of the peace’.

Employers must allow their employees time off work to carry out their duties as a magistrate but they do not have to pay them for the time they spend in court. If their employers are not in a position to pay them whilst they are not in work, a magistrate is able to claim a loss of earnings allowance from the state and they can claim travel and subsistence. A magistrate is expected to work at least 26 half days a year.

Lay magistrates are important in that they are part of the tradition of allowing unqualified persons to represent the public as part of the legal process.  As Magistrates’ Courts deal with around 97% of criminal matters they are generally acknowledged to be carrying out a vital role.

At one time candidates for the magistracy were approached by word of mouth to see if they were interested in becoming a magistrate.  These contacts would probably have been made by existing magistrates amongst their friends, acquaintances and colleagues.  Some would describe this as the ‘old boy network’ as there was no formal selection process and the system was heavily criticised for not being open and transparent.  The actual appointments were made, as they are now, by the Lord Chancellor.  Fortunately this selection process has now improved.

A considerable number of new magistrates are appointed each year.  However, under the present system recommendations are now made by local advisory committees and whilst the system is still open to criticism, it is more open than it used to be.

Lay magistrates do not need to have a qualification in law and the emphasis on their suitability centres around their qualities and abilities.

Magistrates will work in a particular area and it makes sense that candidates may be nominated by local groups which are actively involved in the community and this might include political groups or organisations such as chambers of commerce.  However candidates can nominate themselves and in fact it is usual practice nowadays for local advisory committees to make it known in their local newspapers if there is a requirement for magistrates in their area.  It is open for anyone interested to apply, if they feel they meet the requirements. Applications are made by completing an application form available on the magistrates' website. Candidates will be expected to provide names of 3 references including a current employer if applicable. 

Whilst no formal qualification is needed there is a residency requirement and lay magistrates are expected to live or work within the area where they expect to be based.  There used to be a condition that magistrates had to live within 15 miles of the relevant area but this was changed and relaxed slightly under the Courts Act 2003.  The need for a connection with the area does make sense in that there will be many occasions when local knowledge of such matters as housing, education and employment opportunities or the lack of them and social problem areas will be important.

There will be some people whose circumstances exclude them from consideration.  Persons convicted of serious criminal offences will be unsuitable as will undischarged bankrupts. 

Members of the armed forces, police officers and traffic wardens will be unsuitable as their work requirements are likely to conflict with the work of magistrates. Persons will also be excluded if they or their relatives are closely involved with the administration of justice. 

There are two interview stages.  The first is about attitudes and personality.  The key qualities, stipulated by the Lord Chancellor, which candidates must have are:-

    Good character
    Understanding and communication
    Social awareness
    Maturity and sound temperament
    Sound judgement
    Communication and reliability

In addition, they must have certain ‘judicial’ qualities bearing in mind the nature of their work.  This will include the ability to assimilate information and to make reasoned decisions.  They will usually sit as a bench of three, so team working will also be important as will the ability to listen to others.  Candidates will need to be aged between 18 and 65 generally in good health and should be able to hear sufficiently well to be able to follow the cases. Blind magistrates have been appointed but deaf people are considered not to be eligible. Magistrates do not have to have British nationality but all candidates have to agree to take the Oath of Allegiance. Asylum seekers will not be appointed.

The second stage of the interview process is practical by nature and will consist of a range of exercises and activities which relate to such matters as sentencing.  Suitable candidates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice on the advice of local Advisory Committees. The Lord Chancellor strives for political balances as well as a balance in occupations and encourages applications from all walks of life.

Lay magistrates do not need to hold any qualification in the law.  They are assisted in the work they do by a magistrates’ clerk or legal adviser.  The clerk or legal adviser is expected to hold a legal qualification and the Senior Clerk will also provide professional guidance and direction to the other clerks about problems and procedural matters common to the courts in the area.

This does not mean to say that the magistrates will depend entirely upon the legal adviser.  This is because it is the lay magistrates themselves who must deal with such administrative matters as applications for bail, pre-trial hearings and committals.  It is also the lay magistrates who are responsible for hearing summary trials in the event of a ‘not guilty’ plea as well as sentencing.  The legal adviser is there to advise but not participate in the eventual decision making and the modern practice is for the legal adviser to remain in open court when the magistrates withdraw to deliberate about their decision.


In the circumstances it has been considered appropriate for some time that magistrates receive some mandatory training.  The training is practical in nature and is spread over several sessions.  The training sessions will be organised by the clerk and will consist of reading material and distance learning exercises covering the duties of a magistrate. There will be induction courses for the magistrate before his first appearance in court and these will consist of about 18 hours of core training which will be delivered using a variety of methods.

The newly selected magistrate will be appointed a mentor who will be an experienced magistrate able to observe them during a number of sittings. At the end of these observed sittings the mentor will discuss the proceedings and how the magistrate has applied his knowledge and will identify any future training. Visits to a prison, probation service provider and a young offenders institute will also be arranged.

Their initial training and appraisal lasts between a year and 18 months at which time they will undergo about 12 hours of consolidation training. At the end of the first year and every 3 years thereafter the magistrate will be appraised by a specially trained magistrate who will observe the magistrate during a sitting and assess the performance identifying any training that needs to be done. Newly appointed magistrates are encouraged to keep a log of their experiences.  This will assist them in discussions with their mentors and in identifying training needs.

Changes to the law and legal procedures are sent to the magistrates and training provided if needed. Magistrates are given a Handbook along with a guide to sentencing. Part of their training now covers the Human Rights Act 1998. In addition continuation training is provided prior to the three yearly appraisal.

There are four basic competences that must be achieved.  Newly appointed magistrates must be able to understand the framework of the criminal justice system.  This would include such matters as the work and responsibilities of the police, C.P.S. and the jurisdiction of the criminal courts.  This is so that they will better understand their own work and responsibilities.

They must be able to follow basic law and procedure.  Magistrates carry out an essential role in the criminal justice system and deal with large volumes of work.  If they are to be effective then they obviously need to know what amounts to such common offences as driving offences, theft and minor assaults and common procedures, failure to understand this will dramatically slow down the criminal process.  It might also lead to further arguments that magistrates rely too heavily upon their legal adviser.
Newly appointed magistrates must act judicially.  This means that they must listen to others including the arguments and evidence from both sides.  They must keep an open mind and assimilate facts and base their decisions on the evidence and give reasons for their decision.  They do not sit alone therefore they must be able to participate and communicate effectively as a member of a team.

It would not be right or fair on individual defendants if magistrates were ‘thrown in at the deep end’ and not able to participate or contribute effectively through lack of understanding about what was happening, so before they first sit they are required to achieve the first competence by observing magistrates and clerks at work.

Magistrates have particular responsibilities for youth courts and family courts and if selected to sit in such courts will receive additional training in those areas.

The chairperson will have additional responsibilities and this will include making sure that the other magistrates are listened to and to announce the decision of the bench as a whole.  Extra training is therefore given in this area. There may be times when the bench are signalling to others by way of deterrent that the behaviour is particularly offensive or trying to strike the right balance between the needs of the victim and the individual in terms of sentencing and this will need to done carefully and sensitively.

Magistrates can be dismissed for reasons such as misconduct or incompetence and must retire by the age of 70.

(Word Count 1732)

As always the links provided will enable you to do further research and enhance your understanding of the criminal courts and lay people.

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Magistrates Quizbusters Quiz - Blockbusters Quiz. Try our quiz with a friend or use it as a prompt to revise some of the terms used to describe magistrates and their work. All the answers can be found in the essay or on The Magistrates' Association website.




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