February 2016

Not Guilty! How to Become a Magistrate (Confessions of a Justice of the Peace)

Sharon Smith and Dr. Joe Stevens, LSBM

Many of our LLB (Hons) students wonder what it takes to be a magistrate, what it involves and what the commitment amounts to. Senior Law lecturer and LLM Course Leader, Dr. Joe Stevens, organised for Sharon Smith, a justice of the peace (a magistrate) in Northampton for the last six years, to visit LSBM on Tuesday 23rd February 2016 to talk to students as part of their Legal Systems course to explain about the role of a magistrate.

Students on this course are expected to visit real life courts and write about their experiences, so this visit was of great benefit in giving them a feel both for what they will be seeing in court itself and what may be going on behind closed doors as justice is decided upon.

In reality the role of magistrate is a judicial position that all of us could do with understanding more about, even if we (hopefully) don’t have cause to experience it personally, as it is a key component of our judicial system.  

So, in this article I am going to go in-depth into both Sharon's experience as a magistrate and the process that is involved in becoming one.

This is a long article, so here are the sections that will be covered:

1/ The Basics - A little history and exploring the types of cases that a magistrate deals with.

2/ The Wheels of Justice - Some background about the magistrates role and a (very basic!) diagram of a magistrate's court.

3/ The Process of Applying to Become a Magistrate - The essential characteristics. Age requirements, the time commitment, physical requirements.

4/ A Few Facts - Facts about magistrates. How many there are in each age range, how many are recruited, what is the gender and ethnic mix?

5/ The Detail... Form Filling, Interviews and References - The nitty-gritty of the magistrate application process and what to expect. Sharon's experience and how it is a little different from the current process.

6/ The Six Core Requirements - Exploring the specifics of the six core personality, character and life-skill traits that every magistrate is supposed to exhibit (according to the Lord Chancellor).

7/ 3 Common Misconceptions About Magistrates That are Wrong - An infographic which explores three common misconceptions about magistrates that are wrong.

8/ The Practicalities of Being a Magistrate - Insights from Sharon about the day-to-day reality of doing the job of a magistrate, statistical differences in sentencing between courts.

9/ Conclusion - The good and the bad...

1/ The Basics…

There are approximately 330 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales, with around 19,500 magistrates (19,634 in April 2015), or ‘justices of the peace’ as they are also known.

The name dates back to 1195 when Richard I appointed ‘keepers of the peace’, which became ‘justice’ after 1361, in the reign of Edward III. This title is used interchangeably with magistrate, which has been in use since around 1374, and which at its root comes from the Latin word magistratus, which derives from magister (master).

(You will sometimes see magistrates use the letters 'JP' after their names, to indicate that they are a 'justice of the peace', but this is now being discouraged by the Lord Chancellor.)

Virtually all criminal court cases start in a magistrates’ court, and more than 95 percent are completed there. The types of case that are handled are those that can attract prison sentences of up to six-months for any single offence (12 months in total), a fine of (usually) up to £5,000, or a community order.

Typical cases that might be heard include less-serious criminal cases (relatively speaking), such as minor theft, public disorder, criminal damage (of over £5000), motoring offences, non-payment of council tax, right of entry applications and bail applications, as well as sending more serious crimes, such as rape and murder, to the Crown Court for trial.


2/ The Wheels of Justice… (return to top)

Cases in the magistrates’ court would normally be heard by a panel of three magistrates, which would include a ‘Chair’, who would have a minimum of five-years’ experience and be the magistrates spokesperson in the courtroom, and two other magistrates who are referred to as ‘Wingers’. The three magistrates would be advised by a Clerk to the court, who would be a qualified solicitor or barrister of at least five years’ standing that could advise as to legal matters, and provide information such as available sentencing options (which would differ depending on the crime).

Ultimately, it would be the three magistrates alone who would decide on the guilt or innocence in the case. The Clerk is only there to advise on matters of law, and some cases have even been quashed on appeal where it has been suspected that the clerk has influenced the outcome of a case with personal opinions, rather than matters of law.

The layout of the court would typically look like this:

Typical Layout of a Magistrates Court


(Note: the Royal Coat of Arms. It is a little known fact that the bowing that goes on in court rooms in the UK is not bowing to the Judge, or the Magistrate. It is in-fact bowing to the Royal Coat of Arms to show respect for the Queen’s justice (of whom the magistrate is a representative)).

Also, despite the fact that the Chair does all the talking for the magistrates in the courtroom, each of the magistrates has equal authority when it comes to deciding on the judgement in the case. The aim when reaching a decision on the outcome and the sentence is to arrive at a consensus that all three magistrates find acceptable.


3/ The Process of Applying to Become a Magistrate
(return to top)

Unlike many roles in the justice system, greed is not a motivating accusation that can be levelled at magistrates. The position itself is totally voluntary, without financial recompense. But the time involved both to become a Magistrate, and the ongoing commitment is considerable.

In order to become a magistrate you need to first meet some basic requirements as follows:

Physical characteristics:

  • Be between 18 and 65 years of age (Magistrates must retire at 70 and are normally expected to serve for at least 5 years). (The minimum age used to be 27, but this was changed to 18 in 2004. There were however only 75 magistrates under the age of 30 as-of April 2015. The current youngest, Alex Hyne, 18, was appointed in 2015.)
  • Must be able to hear clearly, with or without a hearing aid, to listen to a case. (So no ‘deaf’ magistrates. It is interesting to note that blind people also used to be banned from becoming magistrates, but this was changed in June 2001, following a successful three year trial involving nine blind magistrates).
  • Be able to sit and concentrate for long periods of time.

Personal characteristics:

  • Need to be ‘aware of social issues’
  • Mature, understand people and have a sense of fairness
  • Reliable and committed to serving the community

You also need to be able to:

  • Understand documents, follow evidence and communicate effectively
  • Think logically, weigh up arguments and reach a fair decision

Sharon explained that she is expected to spend a minimum of at least 13 full-days, or 26 half-days (although the national ‘average’ is actually 35 half-days) a year in the performance of her duties as a magistrate.


4/ A Few Facts…
(return to top)

As the position itself is unpaid, it is no surprise that there are a lot of retired people who serve as magistrates (around 57% of magistrates are currently over 60), as they are among the few groups of people who have the required amount of available time.

The majority of magistrates fall within the 45 – 65 age range.

Latest 'Serving Magistrate' statistics from April 2015 figures show that the age range of magistrates is as follows:

Under 30 - 75 (0.38%)
30 - 39  - 516 (2.63%)
40 - 49  - 2,202 (11.22%)
50 - 59  - 5,621 (28.73%)
60 and over - 11,220 (57.15%)

Total = 19,634 (April 2015)

This disparity towards older people serving as magistrates (over 85% of current magistrates are over the age of 50) does however mean that many more magistrate positions become available every year then may otherwise be the case, with approximately 1,500 magistrates being appointed every year.

(You can see current Magistrates recruitment information by area here - which shows that (when this article was posted) there were 569 magistrate's positions showing as being available across the country.)

The number of vacancies may also be contingent on other factors as well. A January 2014 story in the Law Gazette for example reported that the number of lay magistrates had fallen by 20% since 2008, while the number of district judges had risen by 4%.

The story reports an unnamed magistrate as saying:

‘I’ve felt for a long time that there is a hidden agenda in the civil service to get rid of the lay magistracy. We are seeing more and more district judges being appointed and taking over a lot of the work we used to do.’

It should be noted that financially speaking district judges cost the taxpayer three times more per hour, when all expenses are considered, than magistrates.

In addition, the actual numbers are considerably worse than the Law Gazette indicates. The 'real' numbers have shown a far-greater than 20% drop in the number of serving magistrates.

According to official government statistics from Judiciary.gov there were:

19,634 serving magistrates in April 2015, and

29,419 serving magistrates in April 2008

So, in that seven-year period alone the number of serving magistrates has dropped by 9,785 or around 33%.

On the flip side, in 2015 the Government announced new powers for magistrates to issue unlimited fines for health and safety offences which seems to strengthen the role of magistrates. So, there are always additional political undercurrents that can affect recruitment.

Despite the bad-press that the judiciary sometimes gets about being male-dominated. The composition of the magistrates’ court is surprisingly balanced, with 53% of magistrates being women in April 2015 (compared to 37.9% of professional judges).

In fact, some magistrate's courts are actively seeking men to become magistrates, as they are under-represented in some areas.

Here for example is a selection from a real magistrate recruitment notice for Avon & Somerset: (Note the highlighted part)

"To maintain a Bench that is representative of the Community we would particularly like to encourage applications from men, members of Black and Minority Ethnic communities, people in paid employment and people with a disability." Source

In terms of ethnic-minority representation, it is also more diverse then you may expect, with 8.58% of magistrates coming from an ethnic minority background in April 2015. (The figure is similar for professional judges at 8%). By way of comparison, in April 2008 the figures were 6.8% of magistrates and 4% for professional judges. So, ethnic-minority representation as a percentage of the judiciary has increased considerably over the last seven years, and actually doubled in the professional judiciary.

It is however fair to point out that due to the fact that magistrates are unpaid, and have to volunteer so much time, that a true reflection of the composition of society is not really possible, often due simply to the fact that many people who would otherwise apply (and may be successful) cannot afford the time or the money to be magistrates. (Note the 'people in paid employment' part in the recruitment notice above, which is indicative of how many retired people already serve as magistrates).

You also cannot be a magistrate if you have an occupation that is felt to be a ‘conflict of interest’, such as a police officer, member of the armed forces, or (rather bizarrely) a traffic warden. But you also do not need to have any legal experience, or formal qualifications to put yourself forward.

You cannot however have had too many brushes with the law! Specifically, if you have been:

  • found guilty of a serious crime
  • found guilty of a number of minor offences
  • banned from driving in the past 5 to 10 years, or
  • declared bankrupt

Then it is unlikely you would be taken on as a magistrate.


5/ The Detail… Form Filling, Interviews and References…
(return to top)

The process of applying to become a magistrate starts by visiting a magistrates’ court, when it is sitting in general session, on at least one, but preferably two or three times in the year preceding your application to familiarise yourself with the work of the court.

It is important to realise that this is a requirement, not a ‘nice to have’. Candidates who have not undertaken these visits will not be interviewed. It should be noted that when Sharon applied to become a magistrate this requirement was for 12 court visits prior to any application, so the rules have actually been made much less stringent in this regard in recent years.

Once an applicant has decided they would like to apply to become a magistrate, they are then required to complete an in-depth, 17-page, application form.

(You can download it here if this blog-post inspires you to apply!)

2 students listening to Sharon's talk at LSBM - 23rd February 2016

Sharon herself commented that the sheer size, scope and requirements of this document had put her off from applying for over a year before she finally did. So don’t think you are alone in feeling a little overwhelmed at what is needed.

It does however make sense that a position of such importance and responsibility, as a magistrate, requires an equally stringent application process.

The application form itself lists the six key qualities that all magistrates should possess as:

  • Good Character
  • Understanding and Communication
  • Social Awareness
  • Maturity and Sound Temperament
  • Sound Judgement
  • Commitment and Reliability

The application form requires both a detailed biography, extensive reflective essays of why you want to become a magistrate, and three references. (Sharon mentioned that she had needed six references when she applied, so it may well be that future magistrates have an easier time applying than those that have gone before.)

Nevertheless, this is NOT an application that you will be completing quickly!

The process is also lengthy, even after that first burst of form-filling activity, with Sharon enduring a further three stage interview process after her initial application.

Sharon thought that the first interview would involve questions about why she wanted to be a magistrate, her motivations and experience. But instead she was presented with a list of cases and asked to rank them in order of importance and then discuss with the three-person panel (typical for these interviews) why she had given precedence to certain cases over others.

This interview was then used to judge basic competence to do the job, rather than motivation.

The second interview was where Sharon discussed motivational factors. This happened a few months after the first interview had been ‘passed’ (So anyone looking to ‘quickly’ become a magistrate may well be disappointed.)

(Note however that new guidelines aim for second interviews to take place no more than 15 days after the first one, so things may now have improved)

This second interview went into more specifics about the motivations behind why Sharon actually wanted to be a magistrate. With her having to convince a panel of people (one of whom is now a non-magistrate to give an outside perspective on the recruitment process), that her motivations were sound, and that she had the six core requirements that were being looked for in new magistrates.


6/ The Six Core Requirements…
(return to top)

The Lord Chancellor in 1998, detailed the specifics of what was meant by the ‘Six core requirements’ as follows:

  1. Good character: Magistrates are expected to have personal integrity, enjoy the respect and trust of others, and be able to maintain confidences.
  2. Understanding and communication: Magistrates must be able to understand documents, identify and comprehend relevant facts reasonably quickly and follow evidence and arguments.
  3. Social awareness: Magistrates must have an appreciation of, and accept the need for, the rule of law in society. Magistrates should also display an understanding of their local communities, society in general, and have an understanding of the causes and effects of crime.
  4. Maturity and sound temperament: Magistrates must have the ability to relate to and work with others. They must have regard for the views of others and a willingness to consider advice.
  5. Sound judgement: Magistrates must have the ability to think logically, weigh arguments and reach a balanced decision. They must be objective and have the ability to recognize and set aside their prejudices.
  6. Commitment and reliability: Magistrates must be committed to serving the community and be reliable.

Finally, there was then a third-stage interview where Sharon was presented with longer case histories of defendants, and asked how she would deal with them. This stage was critical for Sharon, as the panel went into more detail about where they perceived her potential shortcomings may be, and any concerns they had about her. For example, at Sharon’s interview they questioned her about whether she would be willing to give a custodial sentence to a woman with a child.

It should be noted that in the current selection process rules that only two-interviews are mentioned. So it may be that the number of interviews you would be expected to attend has now decreased. Regardless, the same factors will be being tested and you will need to be prepared for them.

Naturally, like any job interview where you are passing from interview to interview. You can fail at any point. And you are likely too. Under the selection process rules it is recommended to interview an average of 3 candidates for every role.

Additionally, your original application is retained for five years, along with notes about you from the interview panels, even if you fail. As well as during your tenure and for five years after you leave, even if you succeed, so any discrepancies that emerge between the truth and what you have said during your application (and on the form) can always be looked at, and could lead to dismissal or further action.

(You can read about the detail of the selection process here. And a useful document of Application Guidelines here.)



Infographic showing 3 common misconceptions about magistrates in the UK



8/ The Practicalities of Being a Magistrate (return to top)

Sharon spoke about how her own motivation to become a magistrate had been prompted by feeling that the justice system was weighted in terms of punishment, rather than rehabilitation.

The Prison Reform Trust reported in May 2014 that 58% of those serving sentences of less than 12 months are reconvicted within one-year of release, and that this rises to 67% for those under 18 years of age. So the facts do bear out that prison is currently doing a poor job at rehabilitation.

Sharon did have some interesting insights into the reality of working as a magistrate.

The three sentencing tools in the magistrates’ toolbox are fines, community orders and prison. Of these you would think that prison would always be feared. But in fact, Sharon spoke about how her experience was that some people actually sought out prison in the winter months, and would bring their bags to the court, hoping for a custodial sentence, because they knew they would be fed and have shelter.

She also spoke about the other side of the coin, the people who would physically shake at the very idea of going to prison.

The day-to day experience of magistrates is also changing with the times. Courts are making increasing use of IT, so that the enormous amounts of printed paperwork is being gradually replaced with digital texts that the magistrates can read (though the volume of reading is still very high, so Sharon emphasised that being able to read quickly is a must).

It is also true that sentencing (certainly in the past) has differed quite markedly for some crimes depending on which magistrates court you found yourself in, so the job is not without personal or regional bias seeming to be in play.

The Government's White Paper, Justice for All set out differences found in criminal sentencing in the magistrates' court in 2002.

  • For burglary of dwellings in Teesside, 20 percent of offenders were sentenced to an immediate custodial sentence, compared with 41 percent in Birmingham; 38 percent of burglars in Cardiff Magistrates' Court received community sentences compared with 66 percent in Leicester.
  • For driving while disqualified, the percentage of offenders sentenced to custody ranged from 21 percent in Neath Port Talbot (South Wales) to 77 percent in Mid North Essex.
  • For receiving stolen goods, 3.5 percent of offenders sentenced in Reading Magistrates' Court received custodial sentences compared with 48 percent in Greenwich and Woolwich and 39 percent in Camberwell Green.

However, national sentencing guidelines are regularly forthcoming from the Ministry of Justice to try to achieve standardised sentencing, and they do openly publish statistics about the operation of the justice system in the UK. There is also a new national body, the Sentencing Council, which was established in 2010, which regularly publish specific Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines, and so quite what other measures can help to get more consistency in sentencing is still an open question.


9/ Conclusion…
(return to top)

Sharon clearly enjoys her role as magistrate. She has been doing it for six years and is currently a Winger, but could now think about training to become a Chair, as she has served for more than five years. But there are niggles. She spoke about the large amounts of wasted time that would happen because of plea changes, evidence changes and general legal toing and froing and also the challenges of weighing up the best interests of the accused against the interests of the public when setting bail terms.

The bottom line is that becoming a magistrate is a challenge and you need to be committed to apply.

You will have to show you can meet the high-standards that are required, and complete an application process that may at times feel overwhelming. You may fail. But even if you succeed you will be expected to volunteer considerable amounts of time for no pay, and sometimes the system will exasperate you.

But along with the niggles, there are many more upsides. The real sense that you are making a practical difference in the world, regular training, and a feeling of serving the community that you are part of.

This is also a role that will always challenge, always offer something new, always provide food for thought about life, justice, law and real-life questions of philosophy.

It isn’t for the faint-hearted to apply.

Is it for you?


Stuart Brown
Media and Content Manager

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