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.

The jury’s verdict

The jury decides on the facts, while the judge decides on matters of law. Having heard all the evidence for the prosecution and the defence, it is for the jury to decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. It is for the judge to decide on the appropriate sentence if a guilty verdict is reached.

The jury’s verdict is expected to be unanimous, but after at least two hours of deliberating, a majority of 10 to 2 or 11 to 1 will be accepted by the judge. Under the Juries Act 1974, the foreman of the jury must explain to the court the number of the members agreeing or disagreeing with the verdict. If fewer than 10 agree that the defendant is guilty, and the jury cannot reach a verdict – the jury will be discharged. These cases of a ‘hung jury’ are relatively uncommon. Sometimes a retrial will be ordered.

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 a member of jury in the following circumstances:

  • They have been sentenced to prison, youth custody or community service within the last ten years;
  • They have been on probation or on bail in the last five years;
  • They have had been in prison or youth custody for a period lasting longer than five years;
  • Those with severe mental health disorders;
  • Judges and other members of staff of the administration of justice, Criminal Justice Act 2003.

In addition, some people have the right to be excused from jury service including:

  • 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 they should be excused from jury service; for example, serious illness or because they have already booked a holiday.

Selection of a jury panel

Names are picked by random from the electoral register for the area in which the court is situated. This is done by a computer at the Central Summoning Bureau. At court, the prosecution as well as the defence can challenge the appointment of individual jurors. Even the whole jury panel can be challenged if it is considered to be 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 lacks capacity to act properly as a juror.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.