Friday, 10 December 2010

Magistrates' Courts

Magistrates' Courts deal with the bulk of criminal cases brought to court in England and Wales.  The judiciary in a magistrates' court comprises the Justices of the Peace (JPs or, as they are often referred to these days, "lay magistrates") and District Judges (Magistrates' Courts).

JPs will usually sit in benches of three and will be advised on law and procedure by a legal adviser.  District Judges are legally qualified and may sit alone.  In 2011, the Justices of the Peace celebrate their 650th Anniversary - see Justices of the Peace Act 1361

The predecessor to the District Judge was the Stipendiary Magistrate.  Appointments as "Stipes" tended to be few in number and they sat mainly at the larger city magistrates' courts.  District judges have come into greater prominence since the Courts Act 2003 reformed the Magistrates' Court system.  Some are seeing the District Judges as an eventual replacement for JPs.

Interestingly, the two types of judiciary in the magistrates' courts never (or rarely) appear to sit together to decide cases.  Whilst each form of magistrates' court has its merits, it makes one wonder whether a "lay" bench could have been as outspoken as the District Judge in this case of a Police Superintendent caught speeding - Daily Mail 10th December.  The Superintendent was told by the officer who stopped her that she would not be prosecuted.  The CPS decided otherwise.  The Judge was very critical of the action of the Police Force in the case.  He is reported as saying - "

‘In the year I have been in Nottingham I have been extremely alarmed by the amount of cases where officers took it upon themselves to issue cautions or deal with cases in the way this officer did.’


  1. I knew Tim Devas when he was a defence solicitor in the mags courts. he was never short of a strongly held opinion even then...

    1. He done me proud as a defence solicitor. Spoke his mind and says how it is..No beating around the bush with this guy

  2. I agree and not afraid to express it. Whilst I have admiration for his style, I am not (yet) convinced that we ought to have quite so many DJs. However, that thought I will store for the future.

  3. "it makes one wonder whether a "lay" bench could have been as outspoken as the District Judge in this case of a Police Superintendent caught speeding"

    The operative word is "could". And the answer is "yes". A bench of J.P.s has all the authority of a D.J. All it requires is the confidence of its chairman, with approval from colleagues, to comment as the occasion demands.

  4. @ Justice of the Peace - I would agree that they "could" have been as outspoken. However, I don't think they "would" so comment since they would surely be advised not to do so. The District Judge's remarks actually related to a trend which he had perceived since taking over his post in Nottingham. He will see many cases and, to be fair, many more than the average JP sitting perhaps once per fortnight. Even so, this kind of comment is probably unwise. What actual evidence does he have of the number of occasions when Police Officers have behaved like this. How many such cases has he actually seen in his court? Facts and figures would be needed. Also, a judge is in a better position than the average JP on the lay bench to raise his general concerns with the Police and could do this via several available mechanisms.

  5. Even as a single incident from the point of view of justice being seen to be done a considered remark couched in the correct terms would not have been out of place whether from JP or DJ. In this instance the latter`s remarks were broad brush. To the ears of an observer in the public gallery who has little thought of general trends, cautions etc the remarks whether actual or circumscribed gave a clear indication that police officers, especially those of high rank, are or should be treated as anybody else. When the prevailing opinions are, not without foundation, that police officers are sometimes[often?] subject to higher hurdles for conviction [G20] public statements as recorded can be useful.