Lay people and their role in the English legal system

Magistrates and Juries

Lay magistrates

The integration of lay people into the English legal system has been very successful and some of these reasons include that:

  • It involves people with local knowledge.
  • Magistrates come from a wide range of careers not just a legal background.
  • The cost of the process is less expensive.

A person suitable for being appointed as lay magistrate must be between 18 and 65 years old and live in or near the to the justice area where they are going to be appointed. There are however some restrictions on who can be appointed a magistrate and these include:

  • Those who have been declared bankrupt.
  • Those who have criminal convictions.
  • Anyone enlisted in the army.
  • Police officers.
  • Traffic wardens. 

The lay magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on behalf of HM the Queen and following the recommendations of local advisory committees. They are interviewed by political parties, trade unions, chambers of commerce, etc; and most successful candidates are recommended to the Lord Chancellor. Also the composition of the local Bench should be considered, i.e. gender, ethnic origin, occupation, and political ideas; in other to keep the balance. Employers, bound by the Employment Rights Act 1996, have to provide their employees with enough time to sit as lay magistrates. Two or three lay magistrates form a Bench and each Bench is controlled by a Magistrate’s Clerk who assists in advising on the law, practice and procedure. 

Training

New lay magistrates must achieve three basics competencies:

  1. The ability to managing themselves.

  2. Working as a member of a team.

  3. Making judicial decisions.   

When appointed as lay magistrate, each new member is assigned to a mentor as well who oversees their personal development and logs their progress. The training is very much “on the job.”

Retirement and removal

Lay magistrates must stop hearing cases at the maximum age of 70, at which point they are moved to the supplemental list. Nevertheless, the Lord Chancellor is entitled to dismiss any of the lay magistrates in the following circumstances: 

  • Incapacity.

  • Misbehaviour.

  • Failure to meet such standards of competence provided by the Lord Chancellor.

Juries

Juries are used in criminal cases in the Crown Court where the defendant pleads ‘Not Guilty.’ The use of a jury in civil disputes is restricted to cases about defamation, false imprisonment or malicious prosecution and fraud. Juries are also present in the Coroners’ Court to research cases of deaths in prison, police custody, industrial accidents or public healthy.

There are several points which make a jury attractive inside the legal scheme: 

  • It makes the system more open.

  • Defendants are tried by their peers.

  • There is a public confidence in the use of juries.

  • The jury is independent, so members are allowed to come to a different verdict .

The jury’s verdict

The jury decides about the facts while the judge pays attention to the law and precedents to make the final decision. Having heard all the evidence it is for the Jury to decide if the defendant is guilty or innocent, and for the judge to decide on the appropriate sentence. The jury’s verdict is expected to be unanimous, or after at least two hours deliberating, a majority of 10 to 2 or 11 to 1. The Juries Act 1974 establishes that the foreman of the jury must explain to the court the number of the members agreeing or disagreeing with the verdict.  

Jury requirements

To serve on a jury a person must:

  • Be aged between 18 and 70.

  • Be registered as a parliamentary or local government elector.

  • Have been resident in the UK for at least five years since their thirteenth birthday.

  • People are not allowed to become member of jury in the following circumstances:

  • They have been sentenced to life imprisonment or a custodial sentence of five years or more.

  • Have served any other custodial sentence or received a suspended prison sentence within the last ten years.

  • Are currently on bail.

  • Those with severe mental health disorders.

  • Also judges and other members of staff of the administration of justice, Criminal Justice Act 2003 can not sit as members of the jury.

Some people have the right to be excused from jury service:

  • People over the age of 65.

  • Members of Parliament.

  • Members of medical professions.

  • Members of the armed forces. 

Once a member of the public has been appointed for jury service, they may ask to be excused. However they must provide a good reason of why the designation would be burdensome in excess, for example in case of illness.

Selection of a jury panel

Names are picked by random from the electoral register for the area in which the court is situated; it is done by a computer at the Central Summoning Bureau. At court, the prosecution as well as the defence can challenge individual jurors. Even the whole jury panel can be challenged if it is considered that it is unrepresentative of the general public or may be biased. The prosecution may challenge individual jurors without giving a reason, but this right must be used sparingly. Moreover, the judge may discharge any juror whom he thinks has no capacity to act properly as a juror.

Other lay people in the system 

Lay people with expert knowledge are also appointed in some specialist courts like the Restrictive Practices Court or the Admiralty Court.