Lay Magistrates deal with the vast majority of criminal cases in the English Legal System. All criminal cases start in the Magistrates' Court and around one million cases a year are heard by Magistrates. They uphold the important principle in our legal system of trial by ones peers. One of the great strengths of the English legal system is the participation of ordinary people in the administration of justice. The other area where this is seen in the criminal justice system is in the Crown Court where juries are used.
There are approximately 29,000 Lay Magistrates in England and Wales .(In 2005 there were 28,253 Lay Magistrates) They are unpaid volunteers and they work part time - 26 half days per year. Lay Magistrates do not need to have any formal legal qualifications. There are however some requirements which were set out by the Lord Chancellor in 1998. These are know as the six key qualities, and are as follows;
- good character
- understanding and communication
- social awareness
- maturity and sound temperament
- sound judgement
- commitment and reliability
There are some other more formal requirements;
- be aged between 18 - 65
- be prepared to sit for at least 26 half days per year
- have no serious criminal record
- not be an undischarged bankrupt
- not be a member of the armed forces
About 1,500 Lay Magistrates are appointed every year. As mentioned they are appointed from lists put forward by the Local Advisory Committees. Names are put forward to the Local Advisory Committees by all sorts of organisations, for example, Trade Unions & political parties, it is now possible for individuals to put themselves forward to the committee (apply) themselves. There is a two-stage interview process. The first interview is used to find out more about the candidate's personal attributes, the panel are particularly interested in the six key qualities mentioned above. The candidate will also be questioned to find out their attitudes on various criminal justice issues such as drink driving and young offenders. The second interview is aimed at testing the candidate's judicial aptitude, this is achieved by a discussion of at least two case studies which are typical of those normally heard in the Magistrates' Court. Once the interviews are completed the advisory committee will submit the names of the suitable candidates to the Lord Chancellor who will then appoint new lay magistrates from this list
This is supervised by the Judicial Studies Board which decides the key areas which Magistrates need training on. The training itself is carried out locally, often by the clerk of the court. In 1998 the Magistrates New Training Initiative (MNTI 1) was set up. This was recently amended by the Magistrates National Training Initiative (MNTI 2) in 2004. This training is divided into four areas of competence;
- Managing yourself - this focuses on some of the basic aspects of self-management in relation to preparing for court, conduct in court and on going learning.
- Working as a member of a team - this focuses on the team aspect of decision making in the Magistrates' Court
- Making judicial decisions - this focuses on impartial and structured decision making
- Managing judicial decision making - this is only for the chair of the bench and focuses on working with the clerk, managing the court and ensuring effective, impartial decision making
Advantages of Lay Magistrates
- Local Knowledge - Lay Magistrates come from the local area and therefore have local knowledge which will help them make fairer decsions in the court.
- Lack of Bias - Having a bench of three Magistrates avoids bias and gives a balanced view.
- Gender Balance - Lay Magistrates come from a wider cross section of society than professional judges. In particular there is greater gender balance with 49% of Lay Magistrates being female.
- Saves Money - Lay Magistrates are only paid expenses saving the tax payer money.
- Saves Time - Lay Magistrates act asa filter meaning only the most serious cases are heard in the Crowen Court.
- Prosecution Bias - Conviction rates in the Magistrates' Court are much higher than the Crown Court.
- Too Middle Class - The middle classes are over represented on the bench. Far too few working class people have the time to become Lay Magistrates.
- Inconsistency - Sentences vary greatly between different Magistrates' Courts and even between different Lay Magistrates in the same court. There are also inconsistencies in the granting of bail.
- Over Reliance on the Clerk - Lay Magistrates have little legal knowledge and rely too heavily on the Clerk of the Court.