Persons in the Magistrates Courts

“Since deciding whether or not someone has committed a criminal act is such a serious matter it would be better if that decision were left to legally qualified personnel rather than lay persons in the Magistrates’ Courts. ” Discuss The English legal system determines the allocation of case proceedings in jurisdictions of both civil and criminal matters. The divisioning of the criminal jurisdiction embodies the hierarchical court structure, and disposals bear on the basis of the type of offence committed by the accused.

Trials on indictment (serious offences) are tried at the Crown Court- superior to the Magistrates Court, before lay persons sitting as jurors, as well as a legally qualified Circuit Judge. On the other hand, the Magistrates’ Court primarily deals with summary offences (minor offences) or cases triable either way (cases of which may be forwarded to the Crown Court, given the serious nature of the offence), disposing over 97% of all criminal cases. [1]

There are approximately 450 Magistrates’ Courts within England and Wales[2], whereby some 29000[3] Lay Magistrates (Justices of Peace) sit as a bench of up to three. Unlike the Crown Court, the Magistrates’ Court incorporates a method involving unpaid lay magistrates to hear case proceedings and dispose sentences where necessary. Due to the fact that these lay participants sit part-time: the court also employs approximately 139[4] fully qualified District Judges (formerly known as ‘Stipendiaries’[5]).

Both types of judges perform the same role, however, it must be distinguished that a District judge sits alone, and on the contrary lay magistrates are assisted throughout criminal proceedings by a legally qualified court clerk. [6] Moreover then, there appears reiterating criticism as to whether lay magistrates presiding within the Magistrates’ courts serve a level of justification for those accused. Dr Penny Darbyshire highlights the issue on the scale of the criminal case capacity-that most of this was heard before the Magistrates Court, disposing over 95% of sentences, whilst juries at the Crown Court considered 1% of sentences.

[7] In addition to this, it is apparent that a certain level of jurisdiction has been provided for the Magistrates, where indictable offences have been downgraded to triable either way offences, and either way offences to summary offences. For instance: offences triable by Magistrates are wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm, causing death by aggravated vehicle taking, firearm offences, burglaries, offences concerning the abduction of children and so fourth.

[8] This raises an underlying question whether unqualified lay participants should assess cases regarding a serious nature and whether the lack of legal awareness would lead to incorrect sentence disposals to those on committal. However, Padfield argues that District judges are more likely to be ‘case-hardened’ and ‘judicially burnt-out’, bearing witness to numerous case proceedings and similar convicts of crime, thus hearing reiterating excuses and arguments. [9] Hence, they dispose custodial remands and hold a minimal inclination to provide bail or acquit suspects.

However, she also found that District judges dealt with hearings which were lengthy in time, concerning serious matters. Furthermore, according to Morgan and Russell, they discovered that it was impossible to conduct whether there had been a differentiating level of sentence disposals between the District judges and Lay Magistrates; since the probability of Lay Magistracy holding presence within case hearings was far more likely. [10] Methods to resolve this issue of ‘case hardened’ decisions have been considered by many.

The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice have indicated that more professional judges must partake within the Magistrates Courts, in the aim of achieving just and consistent decisions. [11] Liberty have also shown an interest in favour alike this, but however with the composition of both a District judge sitting amongst two other Lay Magistrates on a panel, assuring certainty during the decision-making process: ‘The lay magistrates should deal with issues of fact only; the District Judge should have no role in fact-determining, and should consider issues of law and sentencing only.

This should increase the consistency of sentencing (by professional District Judges), improve the quality of legal advice to the bench, while making the approach to fact-finding (in tandem with the changes outlined below) more comparable with that of a jury, more representative of the views of society and less subject to the risks of a ‘case-hardened’ approach to the evidence. ’[12] However, astute criticism of this method have suggested that such a result would amount to unjust decision making rather than one of a majority or a unanimous verdict between the three judges.

Darbyshire argues that this in effect would consequently lead to District Judges playing the significant role as the decision-maker, whilst Lay Magistrates are puppets in process of this. [13] Therefore, for those on committal, this method would ensure an impractical, unjust procedure to reach a decision. Moreso, at present there appears an over-reliance on the Justices’ Clerk, whom plays an administrative provision of advice, during proceedings involving lay magistrates.

This too has been called for reform during recent years, where suggestions of appointing them to the bench to rule the points of law, whilst the Justices consider the facts; or providing them with authority to deal with pre-trial matters. This is essentially to reduce time delays, since currently one professional judge can handle case workloads of up to 30 lay Justices, given their lack of knowledge and legal understanding. [14] Though Darbyshire opposes this proposal and stresses the rationale of judicial activity and administrative function. [15]

‘…Justices’ Clerks are essentially legal advisers, hired and fired (by the Court Service). They are not judges. They are meant to serve judges. Justices and District judges are the judges’[16] This would ascertain a function which would undermine the lay magistracy; if reforms are to be considered then ultimately the government should aim to focus centrally on the level of professionalism within the magistracy, rather than demoting their judicial control. Theoretically, the advice of the clerk is a requirement for the Magistracy panel, in order to make a judgement on a criminal case.

Where lay Justices have failed to do this, they will be held liable for costs of the stated case, should there an appeal against their decision. [17] Although no legal qualification is a requirement, lay magistrates do obtain training prior to the judicial task. This enables them to possess a basic understanding of the English Legal System, and allows them to familiarise themselves with the procedure. The issue of variation within training schemes has been highlighted across England and Wales.

They have appeared variable in quality and the inadequate levels of workload have been assumed to result in variation within the sentencing processes. [18] Evidently, this participation is also extremely cheap, in contrast to the employment of full time District Judges. It appears that a Justice’s expenses on average per year tend to be approximately ? 495, whereas a District judge’s can sum up to ? 90000 annually. [19] Furthermore, it can also be drawn that Lay Justices also bear a local knowledge. According to Harry Mawdsley (the chairman of the Magistrates association):

‘Lay Magistrates provide community justice; they are ordinary people who live and work in the local community and who have an intimate knowledge of that community’[20] Professional judges tend to hear cases from various regional areas in both England and Wales, whereas lay Magistrates are required to live within a certain mile radios to the local Magistrates’ Court. This clearly echoes the idea that lay Justices carry a heightened awareness of the local area, in contrast to that of a District judge.