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A magistrates' court is a lower court, where all the criminal proceedings start. Also some civil matters are decided here, namely family proceedings. They have been streamlined to swiftly and cheaply deliver justice. There are over 360 magistrates' courts in England and Wales.
Summary offences are smaller crimes, that can be punished under the magistrates' court's limited sentencing powers – community sentences, fines, short custodial sentences. Indictable offences, on the other hand, are serious crimes (rape, murder); if an initial hearing at the magistrates' court finds there is a case to answer, they are committed to (passed on to) the Crown Court, which has a much wider range of punishment. Either-way offences will ultimately fall into one of the previous categories depending on how serious the particular crime in question is.
Cases are heard by a district judge (magistrates' courts) or by a bench of three magistrates (lay judges); there is no jury at a magistrates' court. Criminal cases are usually (although not exclusively) investigated by the police and then prosecuted at the court by the Crown Prosecution Service. The defendant may hire a solicitor (or barrister) to represent him, often paid for by the state.
There are magistrates' courts in other common-law jurisdictions.
In criminal matters, magistrates’ courts (formerly known as a police courts) in England and Wales have been organized to deal with minor offences in a speedy manner. All criminal cases start here and over 95 percent of them will end here too – only the most serious ones go to Crown Court.
Summary offences are the least serious criminal offences. They include driving offences, vandalism, criminal damage of small extent, low level violent offences and being drunk and disorderly. This kind of small criminality will be dealt with in summary proceedings at a magistrates' court, and the defendant has no right to a jury trial and no formal indictment is necessary. Both verdict and sentence are solely in the hands of judges and magistrates.
The sentencing powers of magistrates' courts are therefore limited. For one offence, they can inflict a fine of up to £5,000 and imprisonment of up to 6 months. When dealing with more offences, this rises to 12 months. For certain specified offences, maximum fines permitted to magistrates may be higher (for example, for fly tipping up to £50,000). Some driving offences are punished by disqualification from driving for a period of time.
There are four types of sentence available to the magistrates - a Discharge (either conditional or absolute); a financial penalty; a community order (for example, supervision, unpaid work, various sorts of education or training about anger management, domestic violence, or substance abuse, or even a curfew), or custody (either immediately, or as a suspended sentence). The majority of sentences will be non-custodial sentences. If at any point, the magistrates feel their powers of sentencing are insufficient, they can send the case up to a Judge at the Crown Court, who can impose much more severe sentences.
Often the point is to achieve restorative justice (compensation of victims of crime) and reformation of the offender. These alternative punishments are called community sentences. A community sentence would usually consist of community payback, a duty to work between 40 to 300 hours unpaid in the community. This is often complemented by some kind of programme or treatment, offering a helping hand to the offender, and engaging him at the same time – ending a drug habit, coping with a mental illness, skills and qualifications for work, and more. Also, the judge (or magistrate) may issue orders with rules such as curfew, restraining orders (cannot go near his victim, for example) and many others. During serving of community sentences, similarly to suspended sentence, usually the offender will be supervised by a probation officer.
Either way offences can be dealt with either by the magistrates' court or in the crown court. There will be a hearing to decide on venue, hearing an outline of the case from both prosecution and defence. The guideline is whether, taking the prosecution case at its most serious, the court believes that a magistrates' court has sufficient powers of sentence. If so, the case will be accepted, and a date will be held for a subsequent hearing in a magistrates' court - otherwise the case will be Sent to the Crown Court, as with Indictable offences below.
Indictable offences, very serious crimes, will be Sent to the Crown Court (Formerly, this was a two part process of Committal and then Sending - this changed in August 2013).
For all cases, including indictable ones, the magistrates will have to decide however if the defendant is released on ball, or is remanded into custody. In law in England and Wales, bail is automatically granted unless the court believes there is a chance the defendant will either abscond, reoffend during the bail period, or interfere with witnesses or the case in general.
Juvenile justice deals with criminal offences by young people, who have reached the age of criminal liability (ten years old), but are not yet adults (have not reached 18). These cases are heard by specially trained magistrates sitting in a Youth Court. They have the power to impose a sentence of youth detention known as a detention and training order (DTO) for a period of up to two years.
Some of the civil matters, namely family proceedings, are heard in front of specially trained magistrates in family proceedings courts within magistrates' courts. Other civil matters within magistrates' courts' jurisdiction include non-payment of council tax or TV licence.
Modern magistrates’ courts are based on a centuries-old office of magistrate, or Justice of the Peace, named so for their responsibility for guarding the sovereign's peace.
Today, terminological distinction is made between magistrates (lay judges), who handle most cases and magistrates' courts’ district judges (experienced professional lawyers).
In magistrates' courts (including youth courts and family proceedings courts), less complex cases are judged by magistrates or lay judges. (Previously the term "lay magistrates" has been used to distinguish them from professional magistrates, now district judges.) They are chosen from local citizens of good character (not previously convicted), mature personality and sound judgement. It is not their job, they are not paid, only have expenses reimbursed. Magistrates sit in adult criminal courts as "benches" of three (occasionally two), ideally of mixed gender, age and ethnicity.
The lead magistrate, known as the chairman, should be addressed in court as "sir" or "madam" or "your worship", and the magistrates collectively as 'your worships'. In writing, they are referred to as "John Smith Esq. JP" (for justice of the peace). The other magistrates are known as wingers. All decision making is made equally - the chairman does not carry any extra weight; they simply serve as the mouthpiece of the collective bench.
Lay magistracy is an ancient institution, dating in England from at least 1327, when an Act of Parliament provided that "good and lawful men" be appointed in every county in the land to guard the peace.
District judges (magistrates' courts), formerly known as a stipendiary magistrates, are professional lawyers permanently employed by the Ministry of Justice. They sit alone to preside over proceedings in more serious cases, usually involving remand, and in committal hearings. To qualify for the position, a law degree and 5 years of experience are necessary.
District judges (MC) are referred to as Judge, in court addressed customarily Sir or Madam and addressed in correspondence District Judge (Magistrates' Courts) Tuff.
Magistrates and district judges are assisted in court by the justices' clerk and their assistants, also known as legal advisers or court clerks, whose role is to ensure that procedures are adhered to and that the bench is properly directed as to the law and its powers, as well as seeing that the court's business is dealt with efficiently. The clerk's role is far more significant where lay magistrates are presiding because they are not legally trained and so require more advice on legal matters than a district judge. The clerk ought not to exert any influence upon the bench - to which the advice they provide must be neutral - but nevertheless the advice of the clerk carries considerable weight. To this end, the Practice Direction 2000 attempts to resolve issues concerning the influence of clerks over magistrates. It states that clerks should only advise on points of law and all advice should be given in open court in front of all present.
The Crown prosecution service (CPS) is an authority responsible for prosecuting cases on behalf of the state (traditionally, in the name of the Queen or the King), once the police have completed their investigation and charged the alleged criminal.
A relative novelty in English criminal proceedings, the CPS has been established by the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. Since its creation in 1986, it is the principal, though not the only, body that can bring a case to a criminal court in England and Wales.
A minority of cases are prosecuted by other law enforcement agencies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions or the Health and Safety Executive, or private prosecutors such as the RSPCA, local councils or the TV Licensing Agency. In such cases a solicitor or barrister will attend especially to prosecute.
Defendants are entitled to represent themselves, and usually do so in minor cases such as road traffic offences, when they may not even have to attend. However, defendants may be represented by a solicitor or, less commonly, a barrister. In most magistrates' courts there will be a duty solicitor available to advise and possibly to represent any defendant who does not have his/her own solicitor.
Proceedings in magistrates' courts are oral and open for public – exceptions exist for the protection of victims (e.g. rape cases) and in youth courts.
When a defendant first appears before a magistrates' court, they will do so in one of three circumstances. They will either appear on bail having been charged with an offence and compelled to attend court under penalty; in response to a summons, which requires attendance but does not, in the first instance, carry any penalty for non-attendance; or in custody, having been refused bail by the police. If the defendant is on bail, s/he must first surrender to the custody of the court.
Whichever the circumstance, the first requirement is to identify him/herself to the Court. Once the Court is satisfied as to the identity of the defendant, it must consider the charges.
If the charge(s) is a summary offence, the Court will generally expect a plea to be taken. If the plea is one of "not guilty", the Court will fix a date for trial, taking into account the number and availability of the witnesses.
In the event of a plea of guilty, the Court will hear the facts of the case from the prosecution, and mitigation from the defence then consider sentence. For the most minor offences where the appropriate sentence is a fine or discharge, this will usually follow immediately after a plea of guilty. However, where the offence is more serious and may justify a community-based penalty or imprisonment, the case will usually be adjourned for the probation service to interview the defendant and prepare a pre-sentence report in which a recommendation as to the most appropriate sentence will be made. When the defendant returns to court for sentence, the Bench will consider the report along with any mitigation put forward by the defendant before passing sentence.
On each occasion that a defendant appears before the Court, the issue of bail must be addressed. Defendants may be released on bail, which is an order of the Court compelling a defendant's future attendance, which may have conditions attached to it where such conditions are considered necessary either to ensure the defendant's future attendance, prevent the commission of further offences, or prevent the obstruction of justice. If the Court decides that no conditions exist which could achieve these objectives, the Court may remand the defendant in custody until the next hearing.
When an either way offence is to be tried at the Crown Court, magistrates are responsible for committal to the Crown Court (a task in former times dealt with by a grand jury), which requires the court to consider whether there is a case to answer based upon statements and exhibits submitted to the court.
If the charge is an either way offence, the "plea before venue" procedure is carried out. In this procedure, the defendant must indicate what his/her plea to the charge would be. If the defendant indicates a plea of "not guilty", or declines to indicate a plea, the court hears an outline of the facts from the prosecution and representations from the defendant or his representative, and then determines whether the case is suitable for summary trial or not. The court will decline jurisdiction to try the case if it decides that the sentencing powers of the magistrates' court are inadequate to deal with the case. In such cases, the case will be adjourned, normally for a period of between four and eight weeks, for the prosecution to prepare the case for committal to the Crown Court. If the court accepts jurisdiction, the defendant is still entitled to elect to have his/her case tried at the Crown Court.
The grand jury system, which still exists in the United States, has been abolished in England and Wales. Instead magistrates now perform the grand jury's functions of indicting those accused of offences which need to be tried by a jury and committing them to the Crown Court for trial.
In the case of offences which are indictable only, no plea is taken and the case is Sent forthwith to the Crown Court.
When dealing with committal proceedings, it is the role of the Bench to decide whether a case to answer, or prima facie case, exists on the basis of the prosecution statements. In the vast majority of cases this will have been agreed beforehand by the defendant's representative, but where this is in dispute, the Bench must read, or have read to them, the entire prosecution case and then hear argument from the prosecution and defence before ruling on the issue. If the Court finds that there is no case to answer, the matter is discharged; if not, the case is committed to the Crown Court for trial.
There are four mechanisms under which a decision of a magistrates' court may be challenged: