Describe the training of lay magistrates

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.

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Before considering the training of lay magistrates it is 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.

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 common 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 training.  The training is practical in nature and is spread over 7 sessions.  The training sessions will be organised by the clerk.

The newly appointed magistrates will be appointed a mentor.  This is likely to be an experienced magistrate who will be able to observe some sittings when the newly appointed magistrate is sitting.

Magistrates normally sit as a bench of three with one of them acting as a chairperson.  If one or other of the bench were asked to act as an observer or mentor it could be argued that this might distract them away from the proceedings at hand.  Therefore another mentor is appointed and able to provide feedback to the newly appointed magistrate. 

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.

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 otherwise 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.  Therefore magistrates are selected and appointed to Youth Panels and Family Panels to sit in such courts courts but before doing so 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.

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