Criminal Law: A Critical Analysis of the Magistrate Court

 


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Introduction

The Magistrates’ Courts play an extremely important role inside the criminal justice system within the United Kingdom. This brief article will assess the functions of the magistrates’ court and evaluate the effectiveness of having a mechanism for determining the guilt of a defendant based solely on the discretion of the magistrates present. Before assessing the origins of the magistrate court, there will be a brief examination of what a magistrate is and what their functions are. Following from this, a brief insight into the origins of the magistrate court will be given, as it is important to understand the origins of any system as this will inform the reader of the initiative behind the original concept. After discussing the origins of the system, the procedure of appointment will then be discussed. This process will then be examined when the analysis is focused upon the procedures contained within the Magistrate court for assessing the guilt of a defendant. As a defendant will be denied a trail by jury, the system in place for the appointment of these magistrates is of paramount importance, as all individuals must be judged by their peers. If, after considering the evidence, the current system is deemed to be defective, then possible solutions will be considered to improve the present situation. The article will conclude that although the current system is far from perfect, it serves as a significant filter for more serious crimes which are tried in the Crown Court by a jury.

What is a Magistrate?

In the courts of England and Wales, it is the function of a magistrate to hear prosecutions for summary offences. They have the power to make orders in regard to and placing additional requirements on offenders. Magistrates’ sentencing powers are limited compared to that of the Crown Court (See Criminal Law: A Critical Analysis of the Crown Court), extending to shorter periods of custody, fines, probation and community service orders, and a miscellany of other options. Magistrates hear committal proceedings for indictable offences, and establish whether sufficient evidence exists to pass the case to a higher court for trial and sentencing. Magistrates have power to pass summary offenders to higher courts for sentencing when, in the opinion of the magistrate, a penalty greater than can be given in magistrates court is warranted. The function of a magistrate is of great importance, but where did they originally come from?

Origins of the Magistrate Court

The origins of the magistrate system can be seen to have been initiated in the 12th century. Richard I (Richard the Lion heart) commissioned certain knights in England to keep the Kings peace in unruly areas. By the 14th century, a new phrase had been coined to describe individuals who had accepted the responsibility of keeping the peace. The title Justices of the Peace was initiated during the reign of Edward III and referred to ‘good and lawful’ men to be appointed in every county to ‘guard the peace’. The magistrate system has evolved since its early inception and now deals with over 95% of all prosecuted crime and is responsible for handing out over £336m in financial penalties per year. (Source: Department for Constitutional Affairs [DCA]) If a magistrate is responsible for presiding over certain criminal cases, then there must be a proficient system in place to appoint these individuals.

The Appointment Process of Magistrates

The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 provided for Justices of the Peace to be nominated by the Lord Chancellor for the boroughs, in consultation with local advisers. The county benches, however, continued to be confirmed by the Lord Chancellor by way of the nomination of the Lord Lieutenants, who had their own methods for finding suitable candidates. The system was inadequate and was challenged by the Liberal Government in 1906 as there were too many conservatives sitting on the benches. Lord Loreburn, as Liberal Lord Chancellor, nominated 7,000 magistrates of whom 3,197 were Liberals. The Royal Commission on the Appointment of Justice of the Peace in 1910 recommended the institution of an Advisory committee system. A year later Advisory Committees on which Liberals and Conservatives were equally represented had been set up in most counties to advise Lord Lieutenants on nominations. A few years later the boroughs had also formed advisory committees. Originally, appointment to these committees was for life, however, in 1925, Lord Cave introduced appointment for 6 years and ordered half the committees to retire by rotation every three years. A magistrate can, however, still remove a person’s liberty for criminal offences. If we are all to be judged by our peers, then a magistrate should be just that. The problem is, however, that the appointment process is engineered towards professional people who share very little with the people that they judge.

Assessing Guilt in a Magistrate Court

As stated above, magistrates will decide on the guilt of a defendant. There will be no trial by jury, therefore, it is essential that the people who sit in judgment are the defendant’s peers. If one looks at the application process as provided on the department for constitutional affairs, the qualities needed are good character, ability for understanding and communication, social awareness, maturity and a sound temperament, sound judgment and a commitment to the job. These are all admiral qualities, yet these are not imposed upon any jury that sits in judgment of more serious cases. Why is this so? There are numerous possible explanations for this polarized approach, and often depends upon a person’s particular ideological persuasion. Nevertheless, the statistics speak for themselves. Most magistrates are white, middle class males. If one considers that defendants should be judged by their peers, it would be interesting to see how white, middle class males go out stealing cars, or indeed committing other petty criminal offences. What are the possible solutions for this problem?

A Call for a More Diverse Magistrate Pool

Magistrates work on a voluntary basis and need time off work to honor their commitments. There have been Proposals to make it easier for magistrates who are in employment to take time off from work to sit in court (Monday 7 November 2005 10:37 Department for Constitutional Affairs). This, for me, does not solve the problem of having a primarily middle classed system acting as judge, jury and executioner. What is needed is a more diverse magistrate pool. This will provide for a more understanding magistrate. If one has lived in a cozy, secure, insulated world, how are you going to have any affinity with an individual who has had a disrupted childhood? The answer is that you are not. The arguments in favour regarding a more diverse pool of magistrates is deafening, however, it remains to be seen as to whether they will be heard.

Conclusion

This paper has assessed the role of a magistrate within the judicial process by tracing the origins of the magistrate and looking at the way in which a magistrate is appointed. The role of the magistrate is one that should never be undervalued. They give up their time on a voluntary basis and provide a vital service in filtering the more serious crimes to be tried in front of a jury. There exists a fundamental problem, however, in that a magistrate often shares no life experiences with the people that they sit in judgment over. The sociological implications for a system, such as the one in place cannot be underestimated. The time has now come for a more diverse magistrate pool that draws from all members of society, regardless of their previous background.

Thomas Gallagher
LLb John Moores University
LLM Liverpool University

If you would wish to find out more about the magistrates system within the UK or the judicuial system, then go to

http://www.criminal-information-agency.com/courts/crown.htm
http://www.criminal-information-agency.com/courts/
http://www.criminal-information-agency.com/courts/courtresult.php

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