Cases Before Magistrates’
Virtually all criminal court cases start in a magistrates’ court, and around 95% will be completed there.
The more serious offences are passed on to the Crown Court, either for sentencing after the defendant has been found guilty in a magistrates’ court, or for full trial with a judge and jury.
Magistrates deal with three kinds of cases:
- Summary offences. These are less serious cases, such as motoring offences and minor assaults, where the defendant is not usually entitled to trial by jury. They are generally disposed of in magistrates’ courts.
- Either-way offences. As the name implies, these can be dealt with either by magistrates or before a judge and jury at the Crown Court. Such offences include theft and handling stolen goods. A defendant can insist on their right to trial in the Crown Court. Magistrates can also decide that a case is so serious that it should be dealt with in the Crown Court – which can impose tougher sentences if the defendant is found guilty.
- Indictable-only offences, such as murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. These must be heard at a Crown Court.
If the case is indictable-only, the magistrates’ court will generally decide whether to grant bail, consider other legal issues such as reporting restrictions, and then pass the case on to the Crown Court.
If the case is to be dealt within a magistrates’ court, the defendant(s) are asked to enter a plea. If they plead guilty or are later found to be guilty, the magistrates can impose a sentence, generally of up to six months’ imprisonment for a single offence (12 months in total), or a fine of an unlimited amount. If found not guilty (‘acquitted’), defendants are judged innocent in the eyes of the law and will be free to go – provided there are no other cases against them outstanding.
Cases are either heard by two or three magistrates or by one district judge.
Who sits in a Magistrates’ court
District Judges (Magistrates’ courts)
District judges (Magistrates’ courts) are full-time members of the judiciary who hear cases in magistrates’ courts. They usually deal with the longer and more complex matters coming before the magistrates’ courts.
Magistrates are trained, unpaid members of their local community, who work part-time and deal with less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, public disorder and motoring offences.
Learn more about the role of magistrates on our Or for a specific court, see below.
As magistrates do not need to have legal qualifications, they are advised in court on matters of law, practice and procedure. This advice is provided by Justices’ Clerks and Assistant Justices’ Clerks.
They may also be referred to as a legal advisor.
District judge (magistrates’ courts)
District judges (magistrates’ courts) hear criminal cases, youth cases and also some civil proceedings in magistrates’ courts. They can be authorised to hear cases in the Family Court. Some are authorised to deal with extradition proceedings and terrorist cases. They are also authorised to sit as prison adjudicators.
District judges (magistrates’ courts) usually hear cases alone. By virtue of their office they are Justices of the Peace.
District judges (magistrates’ courts) are appointed by the Queen, on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, following a fair and open competition administered by the Judicial Appointments Commission.
The statutory qualification is a five-year right of audience – the right of a lawyer to appear and speak as an advocate for a party in a case in the court – in relation to all proceedings in any part of the Supreme Court, or all proceedings in county courts or magistrates’ courts. Additionally, they will have often have served as deputy district judges (magistrates’ courts) for a minimum of two years or 30 days’ sittings.
District judges (magistrates’ courts) do not normally wear robes in court.
Deputy District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts)
Deputy district judges (magistrates’ courts) sit on a fee-paid basis in the magistrates’ courts, and for a minimum of 15 days a year. During this period, appraisals on performance are collected from pupil-master judges – other experienced district judges (magistrates’ courts), separately, act as mentors to provide support and guidance to their fee-paid colleagues. In general, the jurisdiction of a deputy district judge (magistrates’ courts) is the same as that of a district judge (magistrates’ courts).
Deputy district judges (magistrates’ courts) are appointed by the Lord Chancellor after a fair and open competition administered by the Judicial Appointments Commission, and, prior to appointment, are barristers and solicitors or Fellows of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives with a good knowledge of criminal law and procedure.
Magistrates’ Court- Crown Copyright