In this article
What does a magistrate do?
A magistrate is also known as a justice of the peace, and they have a voluntary unpaid role within the court system in England and Wales. They sit in on cases, hear arguments from the prosecution and defence, and will then decide on the best course of action. They are ordinary people who do not require previous legal experience or qualifications.
Magistrates can sit at magistrates’ courts, family courts or both. Depending on the court they work in, they can sit in on various cases, e.g. theft, motoring offences, minor assaults, child custody, domestic abuse, TV licence evasion, etc. Therefore, what a magistrate does will depend on the type of court they carry out their duties in and the cases they hear.
Magistrates will work with other volunteer magistrates in groups of three, known as a bench. All three can make equal decisions, but one of the magistrates will be assigned as the lead, the Presiding Justice or chairperson who speaks and presides over court proceedings. The other two magistrates sit on either side of the lead magistrate and are known as wingers.
Magistrates do not require legal qualifications, as they are supported by justices’ legal advisers who will advise on the law and correct procedures and guidelines. As well as working with other magistrates and legal advisers, in criminal courts, they may also liaise with district judges, solicitors, barristers, court ushers, probation officers, other court staff, defendants, witnesses, victims, the public, press/media, etc. In youth courts, they may also deal with youth offending team representatives.
In family courts, magistrates may deal with judges, barristers, solicitors, advocates, mediators, court ushers, McKenzie Friends, local authority representatives, children, parents, guardians, other family members, social workers and family court advisers.
Magistrates aim to represent their communities in their local court and make decisions in the best interest of those involved with the case and the wider community. Their duties may include attending court, sitting in on and hearing various cases, listening to evidence and arguments, making sound judgments and explaining the reasons, following legal advisers’ advice, attending training, supporting and mentoring, writing notes, etc.
Magistrates work for local advisory committees and sit in courts run by HM Courts & Tribunals Service and may also work in offices. They typically do this role while having another job.
A magistrate’s responsibilities depend on whether they work in a criminal or family court and the cases they hear.
Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Attending court when needed.
- Sitting in on and hearing various cases in court with two other magistrates.
- Listening carefully to evidence from victims, defendants, witnesses and complainants.
- Listening to arguments, e.g. from prosecution and defence.
- Following advice from legal advisers on matters of law, practice and procedure.
- Making sound judgments and explaining the reasons.
- Attending training days.
- Supporting and mentoring new magistrates.
In criminal cases in magistrates’ courts:
- Deciding on whether individuals are guilty or innocent.
- Passing punishments, e.g. fines, community service, imprisonment, bans and training orders.
- Passing serious crimes, e.g. murder, rape and robbery, to the Crown Court.
- Deciding whether defendants should be kept in custody or released on bail (for cases passed to the Crown Court).
- Considering bail applications and setting conditions.
In cases in family courts:
- Making decisions affecting vulnerable children.
- Making arrangements for children to be taken into care or put up for adoption.
- Enforcing child maintenance orders.
- Assisting in making arrangements for children whose parents have separated.
- Preventing domestic abuse by making court orders.
- Getting advice from guardians or family court advisers during cases.
Magistrates have no set number of working hours. However, they must sit a minimum of 26 half days (13 whole days) annually for a minimum of five years. The days they will work will depend on the type of court they work in and the cases heard.
Some magistrates may have to work unsociable hours, such as evenings and weekends, to sit in on cases or to attend training days. However, most will work in the week and usually 9am-5pm.
If individuals have a paid job, their employer must legally allow them to have time off during working hours to perform their duties. However, employers can choose whether individuals are paid or take unpaid leave.
Magistrates will usually work at courts in their local area. However, if they cannot be allocated to a local court, they may need to travel up to two hours to get to another, which can extend the working day. It may also require overnight stays, for which they can claim.
What to expect
Being a magistrate is a fascinating and rewarding role. Individuals can represent their local communities and make a significant difference. In criminal courts, magistrates help in crime reduction, offender rehabilitation and community support. In family courts, they help and support vulnerable children, families and the wider community.
As the role is voluntary, it can be fulfilling for individuals knowing they are giving up their time for an essential public service. It can also help with their standing in their community and when applying for future jobs.
Individuals do not need specific qualifications to become a magistrate, so it can be a good option for those who want insight into the legal profession. There are also no exams to take, but there is a qualifying assessment if their application is successful.
Being a magistrate can help individuals learn about the law and legal system and develop new skills, which may help them in their future careers and pursuits, especially if they want to enter the legal profession. Having the magistrate title on a CV may boost it when applying for future jobs.
Boredom is unlikely to be an issue for magistrates, as each day they go into court will vary. They will sit in on various cases and work with and meet people from all walks of life. If they work in criminal courts, they could sit in on a minor assault case, and their next one may be a motoring offence.
Even though being a magistrate is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:
- It is an unpaid role – as stated, magistrates are unpaid volunteers. Therefore, those considering the position will need other means of income. Magistrates can claim for expenses, such as travel. Self-employed individuals can claim a loss of earnings.
- Tough decisions and responsibility – magistrates must make difficult decisions regarding cases which can significantly impact people’s lives. They must be fair and make sound judgments on punishments and consequences, which is in the best interests of victims, offenders and society. There is a lot of responsibility on magistrates.
- Difficult cases – the role can be emotionally demanding. In some cases, magistrates hear cases that may be difficult. As all criminal cases start in the magistrates’ court, individuals may have to hear about murders, rapes, serious assaults and robberies. In family courts, magistrates can hear cases involving child neglect and domestic abuse, which can be too much for some.
- Exclusions – some individuals cannot become magistrates if they work in particular jobs, e.g. police officers, or have a criminal record.
- Dress code – magistrates must be presentable and wear smart business-type clothing.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective magistrates must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. It is unpaid, there are tough decisions to make, and there may be emotionally demanding cases. However, being a magistrate brings many positives, especially making significant differences in the community.
When considering whether to be a magistrate, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a magistrate
Magistrates must show they have the right personal qualities, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for learning and volunteering.
- An awareness of social issues.
- Legal knowledge.
- Knowledge of court procedures and government regulations.
- Committed to serving the community.
- Open to learning.
- Understanding, respectful, empathetic and sensitive.
- Self-aware and open.
- Reliable and punctual.
- Fair, impartial and transparent.
- Strong communication skills.
- Active listening skills.
- Judgement skills.
- Public-speaking skills.
- Thinking and reasoning skills.
- Decision-making skills.
- Being thorough and having attention to detail.
- The ability to understand and appreciate different perspectives.
- The ability to work in a team.
- The ability to give the required time to an unpaid position.
- The ability to understand legal information and documents.
- The ability to concentrate for long periods, i.e. listening to long cases.
- The ability to follow the evidence.
- The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
- The ability to think logically and weigh up arguments.
- The ability to reach a fair decision.
- The ability to represent communities.
- The ability to be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use computers, hand-held devices and associated software for basic tasks.
Qualifications and training
Individuals do not require specific formal qualifications or legal training to become magistrates. However, they must meet some eligibility requirements and will need to prepare for their application.
Here is a summary:
Attending court and researching
Those wanting to apply as a magistrate in a criminal court must:
- Visit a local magistrates’ court; at least twice in 12 months to observe proceedings.
- Ensure the court they visit has magistrates sitting, as some will have district judges.
Those wanting to apply as a magistrate in a family court must:
- Research more about the role and how the court works from publically available information, as magistrates hear family courts in private.
- Individuals must be between 18 and 74 years of age to work as a magistrate. At the age of 75, magistrates retire.
- Individuals must be under 65 years of age to apply.
- Individuals must be able to hear clearly without requiring a hearing aid.
- Individuals must have the right personal qualities as mentioned above.
- Individuals must provide two references.
- One must be from their employer if they are employed.
Individuals must show they have good characters meaning:
- They are applying for the right reasons and motivations.
- They are committed to the role.
- Their previous actions and past do not affect people’s trust in them if they are appointed.
- They have not been found guilty of certain crimes or declared bankrupt.
Time to carry out duties
Individuals must be able to:
- Commit to the role for at least five years.
- Attend court for at least 13 full days a year or 26 half days.
- Be in court for more days if they sit in more than one type of court.
- Get approval from their employer if employed.
- Attend training days: 3-5 days in the first year and 1-2 days in the second.
Take an oath
- Individuals must be willing to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown.
- Individuals must reside in England or Wales.
Conflicts of interest
- Individuals must not work in an occupation or volunteer in a role that could make them biased or where there could be a conflict of interest.
Once an individual has done the required preparation and is happy they meet the eligibility requirements, they can apply or register their interest here. Individuals who cannot apply online or want to complete a paper form application can contact their local advisory committee.
If the application meets the eligibility criteria, an individual must complete the magistrates’ recruitment qualifying assessment. If they pass the test, they will receive an interview invite. If successful, they will undergo pre-appointment checks, including an enhanced criminal records check.
Further information on eligibility requirements and applying is on:
Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals become magistrates.
We have many approved courses that can be useful for individuals looking at volunteering as a magistrate, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Equality and diversity.
- Customer service skills.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Understanding GDPR.
- Time management.
- Resilience training.
- Anti-bribery awareness.
- Fire safety awareness.
- Introduction to health and safety.
The Magistrates Association has further information on the role and can advise individuals on becoming magistrates.
Where do magistrates work?
Magistrates volunteer in courts, such as:
- Magistrates’ courts.
- Family courts.
Courts can be in various building types. Most are in large towns and cities.
Magistrates may also work in offices.
How much do magistrates earn?
Magistrates are unpaid, as it is a voluntary role. If employed, their employers may decide to pay them for the days they are on magistrates’ duty.
If an individual is self-employed or must sit unpaid, they can claim a loss of earnings of up to £134.96 per day. Further information on allowances is here.
There are additional benefits to being a magistrate, such as free training, learning and development.
Types of magistrate to specialise in
There are two main types of court that magistrates can work in, Magistrates and Family.
- Magistrates hear cases at a magistrates’ court on the bench with two other magistrates. Sometimes, there may be two magistrates instead of three.
- There is a legal adviser, court usher, prosecution and defence but no jury.
- Members of the public can attend and sit in galleries.
- The courts will deal with criminal and some civil proceedings.
- Here, magistrates hear all summary-only (less serious) offences, e.g. minor assault, minor criminal damage, motoring offences, theft, TV licence evasion, etc.
- Magistrates can also hear serious (either way) offences, e.g. drug offences and burglaries.
- Magistrates hear indictable (the most serious) offences requiring maximum sentences, e.g. rape, murder and robbery, and will send them to the Crown Court. They will decide whether defendants will be kept in custody until the next court hearing or released on bail.
- In these courts, magistrates can give out specific punishments, e.g. fines, unpaid community work, imprisonment up to 12 months and bans, i.e. from keeping animals. They can also give a combination.
- Magistrates can also deal with civil cases, such as enforcing civic financial liabilities and child support payments, council tax evasion and civil behavioural orders.
- They are also responsible for some appeals, e.g. licensing decisions.
- Magistrates sit as Tier 1 judges in a family court.
- Family courts tend to be less formal than criminal courts.
- They help in resolving disputes involving children.
- There is no guilty or innocent verdict, as these cases involve child welfare.
- Hearings are confidential, and there is no public gallery.
- Here, magistrates hear public cases brought by local authorities, e.g. child adoption arrangements, taking a child into care, placing children under supervision, etc.
- Private cases brought by individuals are also heard, e.g. preventing children from being moved abroad, making orders to prevent domestic abuse, making orders regarding parental contact/responsibility, etc.
With more experience and training, magistrates can also sit in youth courts, which deal with young people aged between 10 and 17. Further information on youth courts is here.
All different magistrate roles will require differing knowledge, skills and experience. All magistrates need to have the right personal qualities, especially the ability to listen, make sound judgments and have a sense of fairness. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on where an individual wants to work and the cases they hear. Additional training may be necessary for some roles, e.g. family and youth courts.
If magistrates do not do their role effectively, it can result in cases not being correctly heard and the wrong decision being made, e.g. too lenient or too harsh. It can mean offenders escaping justice, further harm to victims and innocent people being found guilty. In family courts, decisions can significantly impact children’s lives and futures. Therefore, whatever the type of role, magistrates must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to do their work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and ask for help where needed.
Laws, legal guidance and cases are regularly changing. Therefore, magistrates must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes to remain legally compliant and carry out their roles effectively. Continual professional development (CPD) gives magistrates the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with any changes and understand their responsibilities.
Joining the Magistrates Association can help magistrates enhance their knowledge, skills and overall career. It can offer membership, CPD, advice and support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
Being a magistrate can open up more opportunities for career progression. With more experience, they could become a presiding magistrate or chairperson. They could also choose to specialise in family courts or youth courts. Alternatively, they may mentor new magistrates or sit on panels with judges and hear appeals.
Knowledge, skills and experience in being a magistrate can also lead to a career in different areas. Magistrates will learn more about the law and legal proceedings, which may enable them to find a permanent role within this sector. They may want to undertake further qualifications and become a legal adviser. They could also join a committee that advises on policy, standards and guidelines.
Get started on a course suitable for becoming a magistrate
Introduction to Health and Safety£15 + VAT View course
Customer Service Skills£20 + VAT View course
Time Management£20 + VAT View course
Anti-Bribery Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Fire Safety Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Equality and Diversity£15 + VAT View course
Resilience Training£20 + VAT View course
Understanding GDPR£20 + VAT View course