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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

Volunteering as a magistrate

Magistrates, also known as Justices of the Peace or JPs, are volunteers who hear cases in courts. They deal with around 95 per cent of criminal cases in England and Wales. Find out more about what magistrates do and how to become one.

What magistrates do

Who can be a magistrate?

Watch a video on the different types of people who become magistrates

Magistrates sit in courts in their local area and hear criminal cases and help solve disputes.

Magistrates come from all walks of life and backgrounds, and can be any age from 18 to 70. Magistrates retire at 70, and are usually expected to serve for at least five years. As a result, you won’t normally be appointed if you are over 65.

They don’t need to be experts in the law, as they get training for the role and a legal adviser helps them in the courtroom.

Magistrates’ courts don’t use juries. Magistrates sit in a ‘bench’ of three (including a chairman) in the courtroom, and reach decisions on the cases they hear.

You can find out more about what magistrates do in the booklet ‘Serving as a magistrate’.

Hearing criminal cases

If someone is charged with a crime and the case goes to court then it will first go to a magistrates' court.

Magistrates hear a range of cases, from petty crime, such as minor assaults or motoring offences, to some cases involving theft and handling stolen goods.

They will:

  • listen to the evidence
  • decide if the person is guilty
  • decide on a punishment

Magistrates can give out punishments such as:

  • fines
  • unpaid work in the community
  • prison for up to six months (or up to 12 months for more than one crime)

Experienced magistrates with extra training sit in the youth court and hear cases involving people under 18.

Sending cases to the Crown Court

If the magistrates think a heavier sentence is needed they can send the case to the Crown Court. A judge in the Crown Court can send someone to prison for longer.

Magistrates always send the most serious crimes - such as murder, rape and robbery - to the Crown Court.

Magistrates decide if the person accused of the crime should be kept in prison or let out while the case is prepared.

Magistrates can set conditions for letting someone out. They can tell the person they must:

  • visit the police station regularly
  • stay away from named people or places
  • pay a cash security into court, known as ‘bail’

Afterwards the case is heard by a judge and jury in the Crown Court.

Solving civil and family disputes

With experience and extra training, magistrates can go on to deal with cases in family courts

Magistrates don’t just deal with crimes. They also hear some civil cases, over things such as:

  • unpaid council tax
  • appeals against licensing decisions

With experience and extra training, magistrates can go on to deal with cases in family courts.

Family courts deal with cases like:

  • child custody
  • taking children into care

Check you can apply to be a magistrate

Not everyone can become a magistrate, so read ‘Can you be a magistrate?’ to see if the role is right for you.

How you can apply to become a magistrate

If you would like to volunteer as a magistrate, you can find out about more about your local court and check to see if it’s recruiting. Read ‘Apply to be a magistrate’ for information on how to apply.

See what serving magistrates say about the role

Before you apply, you may want to read about what serving magistrates think about the role. Read ‘Experiences of serving magistrates’.

Justices of the Peace in Scotland

The criminal justice system in Scotland is separate from the system in England and Wales. In Scotland, Justices of the Peace perform a similar role to magistrates in England and Wales.

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