Magistrates in the Community

Tuesday 8th February
“Magistrates in the Community”
A total of 44 members, partners and guests came to hear about the British criminal justice system. The presentation was given by 5 local magistrates with Aimée Blattmann Esswood taking the lead.
This year marks the 650th anniversary of the inauguration of the office of Justice of the Peace, which was founded in 1361 and is one of the oldest public offices still active in this country. Office holders today are usually referred to simply as magistrates.
We learnt that some 95% of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrate’s court, the balance being referred to the higher Crown Court to be heard by a Judge and jury. Sentences imposed in the magistrate’s court are limited to a maximum of 6 months imprisonment (per offence), community sentences or fines of up to £5,000 (more for environmental offences involving corporate bodies). Much more severe sentences can be imposed in the Crown Court.
Apart from their more obvious work in the adult courts, magistrates also deal with family and youth matters in special court hearings, cases of animal cruelty, violations of health and safety legislation and environmental pollution and also approve police search warrants and electricity disconnection notices. Magistrates are ordinary members of the public drawn from all walks of life, the only restrictions being that they are aged over 18 and less than 70 years old and have no criminal convictions. Candidates undergo a prolonged interview process and extensive training over a period of about 12 months prior to first appointment. Magistrates are not legally qualified as they at all times have access to a qualified legal adviser,
The criminal process begins with police carrying out investigations into alleged crimes, and following identification of suspects; the Crown Prosecution Service makes a decision as to what charges to make. Defendants then appear in court to be formally charged with each offence and are initially asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no plea. There are significant reductions in sentence available for those pleading guilty at this stage, as it reduces court time and hence public cost. Those pleading guilty are sentenced, often after reports have been sought from probation officers. Those pleading not guilty or offering no plea will subsequently go to trial where a bench of three magistrates will determine their guilt or innocence after hearing all available information concerning the alleged offence(s). As there is inevitably a considerable delay between first plea and trial, magistrates have to decide whether to grant bail (possibly subject to some restrictions) or remand in custody awaiting trial.
At this point we (the audience) were asked to make a bail decision based upon a fictitious (but very realistic) case – the majority of us decided to allow bail subject to some restrictions.
As we were by then in the mood for more active involvement, we were asked to assist in a mock trial of two young offenders charged with shoplifting. We had to form a bench, play the role of witnesses, defence and prosecution lawyers and the defendants.

M Hind