Magistrates’ Court

A Brief Introduction

There are roughly 430 Magistrates’ Courts in the UK and there will be one in almost every town. Cases are heard by magistrates who may be either unqualified law justices or qualified District judges. Each court will also have a legally qualified clerk present to assist the magistrates.

What types of cases will they hear?

The Magistrates’ Courts have a very large workload and they do the following:

  • They try summary offences (driving without insurance, taking without consent, common assault) and the majority of triable either way offences (theft, assault causing actual bodily harm, obtaining property by deception) – these make up 97% of all criminal trials.

  • They try cases in the Youth Court where the defendants are of the ages 10-17 inclusive.

  • They deal with all of the small side matters connected to criminal cases; this may be things like issuing warrants for arrest or deciding on bail applications.

  • They 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. 

The Magistrates’ Court have jurisdiction over a wide range of matters involving criminal cases. Magistrates’ Courts hear criminal trials; in the majority of cases the defendants plead guilty to the charges against them. In cases like these – the role of the court is to decide the sentence that should be imposed on the defendant. Where the defendant pleads not guilty, the role of the court is to try the case and decide if the accused is guilty or not guilty. The prosecution must prove the case beyond reasonable doubt with the use of evidence/proof. 

Trials tend to have both the prosecution and the defence presenting their cases and cross-examining each other’s witnesses. The role of the judge is to oversee the trial and to make sure that all legal rules are followed correctly.

Civil Jurisdiction

The Magistrates’ Courts do also have some civil jurisdiction and this includes:

  • Enforcing council tax demands and issuing warrants of entry and investigation to electricity and gas authorities

  • 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.

Disadvantages to using the Magistrates’ Court

  • The disadvantages to using the Magistrates’ Court are that the costs incurred may be considerably higher than those if you went to a small claims court. The cases will usually take longer and can be complex for an ordinary person to understand.

  • The Magistrates’ Court can also give stricter sentencing than some of the other, smaller courts. 

Advantages to using the Magistrates’ Court

  • The main advantages to using the Magistrates’ Court are that, for more serious cases, they have the power to give higher sentences to a defendant. This is likely to deter that person from committing further offences.

  • They also hear a broad range of different cases meaning that they can help with most issues and cases.