Magistrate (England and Wales)

In the legal system of England and Wales, there is a history of involving lay people, namely people from the local community who are not required to hold any legal qualifications, in the judicial decision-making process of the courts. They are called justices of the peace or magistrates.

These magistrates were termed "lay magistrates" to differentiate them from stipendary magistrates (now district judges). District judges sit alone to hear cases and are permanently employed by the Ministry of Justice (until May 2007, the Department for Constitutional Affairs). Magistrates are not paid, apart from an allowance for loss of earnings, mileage and subsistence (which are at a standardised rate agreed by the Ministry of Justice). A practising solicitor or barrister may sit part-time as a deputy district judge. Retired district judges may occasionally sit as deputies. District judges are formally addressed in court as "sir" or "madam". In law reports, they are referred to as "DJ Smith" (or "DDJ Smith" for deputies).

Magistrates generally sit in threes in order to give judgement on a variety of cases in magistrates' courts, youth courts and family proceedings courts. The lead magistrate, known as the Presiding Justice or chair, is formally addressed in court as "sir" or "madam" or "your worship", and the magistrates collectively as "your worships". In law reports, they are referred to as "John Smith JP" (for justice of the peace).[1]

Magistrates deal with less serious criminal cases, such as minor theft, criminal damage, assaults, public disorder and motoring offences. All magistrates sit in adult criminal courts as "benches" of three (occasionally two), mixed in gender, age and ethnicity whenever possible to bring a broad experience of life to the bench. All three members of the bench have equal decision-making powers but only the chairman speaks in court and presides over proceedings. A qualified legal adviser sits with the bench in the court room and is available to them at all times during the court sitting.[2]

The term "bench" is also used collectively to describe a group of magistrates assigned to a particular local justice area, for example "The Midshire Bench".[3]