The Magistrates Court is a lower United Kingdom court which decides some criminal cases and hears civil matters like family law disputes. There are several hundred Magistrate’s Court centres around England and Wales, and equivalent types of courts in many common-law countries.
Today’s Magistrate’s Court is the descendant of a centuries-old system of legal magistrates and Justices of the Peace deciding relatively small and local legal conflicts. According to the U.K. government, “all criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court,” where they will be heard either by one district judge, or a panel of three magistrates. Criminal trials that are held in a Magistrates Court never have juries. Minor cases that can be handled in summary fashion, like motor vehicle offences and some non-violent crimes are usually handled entitled within the Magistrates Court system. The vast majority of criminal cases in England are handled by Magistrate’s Courts.
However, for more serious crimes, the Magistrate’s Court is only the first stage of a longer process. Charges for indictable offences, like murder, rape, and robbery, are laid in Magistrate’s Court, but then the case is sent automatically to the higher Crown Court. For so-called “either way” offences, like drug-related crimes, the case may be heard in Magistrate’s Court, or it can be sent to Crown Court in the event that the defendant demands a trial by jury (since the Magistrate’s Court does not hold trials by jury). In the meantime, the Magistrate’s Court has the power to order someone who has been charged to be kept in police custody pending trial, or to be released on bail. Summary offences tried by the Magistrate’s Court may result in a jail term of up to six months, “a fine of up to £5,000,” or a sentence to be served in the community, such as a set number of hours of unpaid community service.
The Judiciary of England and Wales explains that the Magistrate’s Court is organized in a quite different way than higher courts that handle more serious or complex cases and appeals. Instead of full-time judges, Magistrate’s Court is usually (but not always) presided over by Justices of the Peace. Justices of the Peace are not required to be lawyers, although they will have been given some training for the job. The Justice of the Peace is assisted by a professional Justice’s Clerk, who will have a sufficient professional background in the law and legal procedure so that they can advise the Justice of the Peace. The Justices of the Peace typically sit in panels of three. In addition to the unpaid magistrates, the Magistrate’s Court employs a smaller number of district judges who have a background as lawyers and handle the more complex cases.
In addition to criminal proceedings, Magistrate’s Courts also handle simple civil matters, like disputes about families and separation, and about council taxes. A special section of the court may also be used in cases where youths are accused of crimes.
Decisions made by a Magistrate’s Court can be appealed by requesting the same court to reconsider its ruling, or filing the appeal with the Crown Court.