The Magistrates’ Court: a brief introduction

The Magistrates’ Court is the lower criminal court in the UK. There are about 330 Magistrates’ Courts in the UK with one in almost every town and city. For the most part, magistrates try criminal cases in the Magistrates’ Court, with 90% of criminal cases being completed there.

Magistrates may be either unqualified Justices of the Peace, or qualified District Judges who deal with longer, more complex matters that come before the Magistrates’ Court. Each Magistrates’ Court also has a legally qualified clerk present to assist the magistrates on legal matters.

What types of cases do magistrates hear?

Summary offences are tried in the Magistrates’ Courts. Examples of summary offences are driving without insurance, taking without consent, common assault, and less serious driving offences.

Most offences that are triable either way (ie. that could be serious or complex enough to be tried in the Crown Court, or if the defendant chooses jury trial) are also tried in the Magistrates Court. These include theft, assault causing actual bodily harm, and obtaining property by deception.

Magistrates also:

  • try cases in the Youth Court where the defendants are aged between 10-17
  • deal with certain issues in relation to criminal cases, such as issuing warrants for arrest, reporting restrictions or deciding bail applications
  • deal with the first hearing of all indictable (more serious crimes i.e. murder or manslaughter) offences which are then sent to the Crown Court.

Many defendants plead guilty to the charges against them, partly because they know they will receive a lower sentence than if they are convicted following a not guilty plea. If the defendant pleads guilty, the magistrates’ role is to decide on the appropriate sentence.

Where the defendant pleads not guilty, the magistrates’ role is to try the case and decide whether or not the defendant is guilty on the basis of the evidence put to the court. Trials usually see both the prosecution and the defence presenting their cases and cross-examining each other’s witnesses. The role of the magistrates is to oversee the trial and ensure all legal rules are followed correctly, and make a decision on the defendant’s guilt or otherwise. The prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.

If the defendant is found guilty, sentencing will take place- sometimes following an adjournment. In some cases, the magistrates may have to send the defendant to the Crown Court for sentencing if their sentencing powers are insufficient.

Civil Jurisdiction

In addition to criminal cases, the Magistrates’ Courts has some limited civil jurisdiction including:

  • Enforcing council tax demands and issuing warrants of entry and investigation to electricity and gas authorities
  • Certain family cases, including orders for protection against violence and maintenance orders
  • Hearing appeals concerning the refusal of a licence to sell alcohol
  • Proceedings concerning the welfare of children under the Children Act 1989