Lay Magistrates are individuals who are not legally qualified but receive training to hear certain cases in the United Kingdom judicial system. These include summary and triable either way offences as well as referrals of indictable offences to the Crown Court. Also a Magistrates’ Court may deal with liquor licence applications and the issuing of arrest warrants and bail conditions as well as youth and family cases. Lay Magistrates who hear youth and family cases must receive special training as detailed later in this essay.
The first Lay Magistrates appeared in 1361 under the traditional name of ‘Justices of the Peace’. Since then, they have played an increasingly major role in the judicial system within the United Kingdom. Lay Magistrates have powers to impose a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment and they can also enforce community penalties, compensation and fines. There are now around 30,000 Lay Magistrates in the English legal system and they hear around 98 per cent of all criminal cases.
Since Lay Magistrates play such a vital role in our system of justice, it is important that they are appointed and trained in a suitable manner. Especially important in the appointment process is for the appointment of Lay Magistrates to reflect the wide spectrum of society within the local community.
Individuals may put themselves forward for consideration. Alternatively, any organisation or individual may recommend a candidate for appointment. There exist local Advisory Committees which consider applications and recommendations. They invite candidates to interview after which suitable candidates are put forward to the Lord Chancellor’s department for selection.
As stated above, this selection process must ensure that candidates elected as Lay Magistrates are representative of the local community. Nevertheless, there are several positive and negative criteria which exist to ensure candidates’ fitness to practice as Lay Magistrates. Candidates must:
* demonstrate common sense
* have personal integrity
* know their local community well
* be able to listen to all sides of an argument
* have capacity to act fairly
* possess good decision making ability
* be reliable and be prepared to make a time commitment
Before any of the above criteria are taken into consideration, however, the Advisory Committee must check that the candidates meet certain basic criteria such as:
* an age requirement of 21 to 60 inclusive
* fitnesss to practice – certain disabilities may inhibit a candidate
* live within 15 miles of the Court
* having been resident for over one year in the locality
The negative criteria that would prevent a candidate from becoming a magistrate include bankruptcy, criminal convictions and general unsoundness of character and position. Also, members of the armed forces, police and traffic wardens cannot become Lay Magistrates and neither can close relatives of another Lay Magistrate on the same bench.
Many people in full time employment serve as Lay Magistrates. Employers are legally obliged to give magistrates reasonable time off for their duties due to The Employment Relations Act 2004. Many employers also agree to pay for at least a proportion of time spent on the bench.
All Lay Magistrates receive training in basic law and procedure, as developed by the Lord Chancellor through the work of the Judicial Studies Board. Training is usually delivered locally by the justices’ clerk or a legal advisor from his team. This training helps new magistrates to develop all the knowledge and skills they need to become an effective and confident magistrate.
There are several aspects to a Lay Magistrate’s training. These include background reading and distance learning exercises that cover the role and responsibilities of a Lay Magistrate. Before sitting in court, a magistrate will receive several days of core training which can take the form of evening session or a full residential course. Core training must involve a minimum of three court observations. A Lay Magistrate will visit relevant institutions during training, such as a prison, a young offender unit and a probation service facility. After around one year’s service, magistrates will also receive several days of consolidation training.
The skills focused on in training, aside from basic theory of law and court procedure, include:
* communication skills
* decision making
* listening skills
* understanding the needs of the community
* respect and detachment from bias and prejudice
* problem-solving ability
A variety of methods are used to deliver training, including small group work, case studies and role play. The most effective method of training has been found to be a mentoring scheme whereby magistrates learn from the experience of sitting in court assisted by a mentor who is already a Lay Magistrate, specifically trained to take on the role of mentor. This takes the form of six formal sittings in court after which there is a chance to discuss the day’s business with the mentor.
After sitting for about a year magistrates will be appraised in order to give Lay Magistrates an opportunity to receive feedback on how they are doing and identify any training needs. The appraisal takes place during a normal court sitting and is conducted by an experienced magistrate specially trained as an appraiser.
Each year, Lay Magistrates will undergo a refresher course, as mentioned above. Further training is also given to magistrates wishing to sit in the Youth Court, or those dealing with family matters. In addition, further training is undertaken as new legislation and sentences et cetera are implemented.