Lay people and their role in the English legal system

Magistrates and juries

Lay magistrates

The UK has a rich and successful history of having lay people involved, as lay magistrates, in the judicial decision making of the courts. The tangible benefits of lay magistrates playing a part in the judicial process includes:

  • Lay people have local knowledge which can be invaluable;
  • They come from a wide range of careers bringing a variety of experience;
  • The cost of the process is less expensive (lay magistrates are unpaid).

How do you become a lay magistrate?

There are various requirements of individuals seeking to become lay magistrates. They must be at least 18 and under 65 years old, and live in or near to the justice area where they are going to be appointed. They must also demonstrate six ‘key qualities’: good character; commitment and reliability; social awareness; sound judgement; understanding and communication; maturity and sound temperament.

There are also some restrictions on who can be appointed a magistrate including:

  • Those who have been declared bankrupt;
  • Those who have serious criminal convictions (or a series of minor criminal convictions);
  • Those who have been banned from driving in the past 5-10 years.

The applicant will require a character reference and undergo two interviews, but there is no guarantee they will be successful as the role is highly sought after. Successful applicants are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on behalf of the Queen, following the recommendations of local advisory committees.

Lay magistrates are required to be in in court for at least 13 days (or 26 half-days) a year. Where a magistrate is employed, their employers must provide their employee with enough time to sit as a lay magistrate. Lay magistrates are entitled to payment of expenses, such as travel and subsidence (though few do claim any costs in practice).

Training of lay magistrates

When appointed as a lay magistrate, each new member is assigned to a mentor who oversees their personal development and logs their progress. They receive practical training over several sessions before they sit on the bench for their first case. Training is a continuing process.

New lay magistrates must achieve three basics competencies:

  • The ability to manage themselves;
  • Working as a member of a team;
  • Making judicial decisions.

Retirement and removal

Lay magistrates must retire by the age of 70, at which point they are moved to the supplemental list. They can then undertake minor administrative tasks but cannot sit as a magistrate. The Lord Chancellor is entitled to dismiss any lay magistrate in the following circumstances:

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


What is a jury?

A jury in a criminal trial comprises 12 members of society who hear a criminal case in the Crown Court and decide whether or not the defendant is guilty. The use of a jury in civil trials is restricted and, therefore, rare. Juries are also used in a limited number of inquests held at the Coroners’ Court. Typically, juries in the Coroners Court hear cases of deaths in prison or police custody, industrial accidents or public health: the jury has to decide how someone died.

The benefits of ‘trial by jury’ include:

    The judicial system is 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.

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For more information on:

  • The jury’s verdict
  • Jury requirements
  • Selection of a jury panel