Describe the selection of lay magistrates

At one time candidates for the magistracy were approached by word of mouth to see if they were interested in becoming a magistrate.

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Before considering the selection and appointment 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 alternatively known as Justices of the Peace and their origins go back to 1195 when Richard I appointed ‘keepers of the peace’.

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 some improvements have been made and we can examine this selection process.

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 subject 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 then open for anyone interested to apply if they feel they meet the requirements.  

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 as 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 also be considered to 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.

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 Department for Constitutional affairs and the Lord Chancellor strives for political balances as well as a balance in occupations.

(Word Count 688)

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