What is a magistrate?

Magistrates are ordinary people who volunteer their time to hear cases in court from their community. They pass judgement on less serious criminal cases and non-criminal cases; serious criminal judgements are instead made by professional judges at Crown Courts. Approximately 95% of all criminal cases brought to UK courts are handled in a Magistrates Court, along with a substantial quantity of non-criminal cases.

If you are a magistrate, you are known as a Justice of the Peace, and you sit in benches of three. On each bench of magistrates, there are two ‘wingers’, who provide input to the judgement but do not speak to the court. They are led by the Presiding Justice, who chairs the court session. All three magistrates take part in the decision making process, and their judgements carry equal weight. At the current time, there are approximately 14,000 magistrates in England and Wales.

If you choose to become a magistrate, it is a part-time role for which you will not be paid, though you will be able to recover reasonable expenses. It is a fantastic way to serve your community, and ensure that justice is delivered effectively in your local area.

“It opens your eyes to how difficult life is for some people, and gives you valuable experience in making tough decisions.”

Nicky Stubbs, Magistrate

What does a magistrate do?

In the role of a magistrate, you will be expected to hear court cases that have been brought to your panel at the Magistrates Court. You will serve as a part of a panel of three Justices of the Peace, and will pass judgement on court cases that are brought before you. Over each calendar year, you must commit to 26 half day sittings in court. Your employers are legally obliged to allow this, but they get to stipulate whether this is paid or unpaid leave.

These cases may be either less serious criminal cases, or may be family court cases. They also make the initial decision to send a serious criminal case to Crown Court, and make the judgement as to whether the defendant should be kept in custody or allowed out on bail. 

When you issue criminal case judgements as a panel of magistrates, you can issue punishments that are minor by comparison to those that can be passed by a judge. These can include:

  • Fines. 
  • Unpaid community work. 
  • Prison for 6 months for a single crime. 
  • Prison for up to 12 months if there are multiple crimes.

When issuing judgements in a family court case, the cases will be about children. Magistrates can receive advice from the child’s guardian, or a family court adviser during the case. The cases will usually be about:

  • Whether a child should be placed into care or put up for adoption.
  • Helping separated parents make arrangements for their children.
  • Enforcing child maintenance orders.
  • Passing court order to prevent domestic abuse.

What skills does a magistrate require?

Being a magistrate is often a stressful role – you will be placed in a position of power, and your judgements will permanently impact lives. While they do not require qualifications in practicing law, a magistrate requires a number of key skills, which includes:

  • Good character – the role of a magistrate is to establish right from wrong, and to apply appropriate judgements to those who have broken the law. As such, being of good character is vital.
  • Commitment and reliability – as a magistrate you will be a part of the backbone of the British judicial system. If you fail to attend court, then judgements cannot be made. As such, being committed and reliable is vital.
  • Social awareness – within your role as a magistrate, you will need to show social awareness and understand the community you intend to serve. 
  • Sound judgement – you will be part of a team making decisions that will permanently impact lives. As a result, you must be able to make sound decisions based on the evidence presented to you.
  • Understanding and communication – a magistrate serves on a panel of three, so you must be able to communicate with your fellows, as well as with those others in the courtroom. Without this skill, you cannot hope to make sound judgements.
  • Maturity and sound temperament – as a magistrate, you will be faced with stressful and potentially upsetting situations. You need to be able to ensure that you do not allow this to impact your judgements, so maturity and sound judgement are highly important skills to possess.

“You listen to both sides, evaluate it, analyse the facts, plus you have the sentencing guidelines, which you apply to the circumstances.”

Agnes Xavier-Phillips, Magistrate

What qualifications do you need to be a magistrate?

In order to become a magistrate in the UK, you do not need to hold any legal qualifications, or any other formal qualifications. You will receive all the training you require as a part of your role as a magistrate, and will have a legal adviser in court with you at all times. This individual will provide all specialist legal knowledge that you may require in order to pass effective judgements.

What requirements are there for becoming a magistrate?

While you do not need qualifications to be a magistrate, you do have to meet some basic requirements. You must:

  • Be between 18 and 65 years of age.
  • Be willing and able to serve 5 years as a magistrate.
  • Have the ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • Be able to hear clearly, without requiring a hearing aid.
  • Have visited your local court at least once to hear a case.
  • Never have been declared bankrupt, or convicted for committing a serious crime, or a number of minor crimes.
  • Not be a serving police officer, traffic warden, or a member of the armed forces.

What is the difference between a judge and a magistrate?

The difference between a judge and a magistrate is that if you are a judge you are a legal professional, while a magistrate is solely a volunteer. While a magistrate requires no legal qualifications or external training, a judge is required to have legal qualifications, and to have worked within the legal profession for a minimum of 5 to 7 years after completing their legal qualifications. However, unlike a magistrate, a judge is a paid role, though they may work on a part time basis while continuing to conduct other legal work alongside their new role.

Can a magistrate become a judge?

There are no legal reasons why a magistrate may not become a judge. However, the role of magistrate does not provide you with any concrete advantages in seeking to become a judge. Do bear in mind that many prospective judges work as advocates or volunteer within their communities, so while there are no concrete advantages, volunteering as a magistrate may assist your application. You will still be expected to fulfil all normal requirements for becoming a judge as normal.

How are magistrates selected?

Magistrates are selected from among a pool of applicants to fulfil vacancies. Each court has an advisory committee to whom you make your application. You will be expected to fill out the application forms, and send these and any supporting documents to this advisory committee, who will then decide whether you may become a magistrate.

What training does a magistrate receive?

If selected to become a magistrate, you will receive all appropriate training that you may require for the role. You will be expected to attend an induction course, and commit to a range of visits to penal institutions and court observation sessions to supplement this. You will receive this training over the course of your first year as a magistrate. You will also be provided with an experienced magistrate as a mentor. At the end of your first year, you will be given consolidation training to ensure there are no gaps in your knowledge and to demonstrate you are still appropriate for the role.

You may also receive training to serve as the Presiding Justice. This will be focussed on training you as a chairperson for the court.There may also be other training opportunities, which could be focussed on local issues, updated training, and new training courses.

Steps to becoming a magistrate

Step 1 – attend at least one court session

Before you can apply to serve as a magistrate, you must have attended at least one court session at a magistrates court within the previous 12 months. If possible, you should attend more sessions than the minimum. This is to ensure you understand the court environment, and allows you to assess whether serving as a magistrate is for you.

Step 2 – submit your application

You must then submit your application to the local advisory committee. To find which advisory committee to apply to, and whether they have any current vacancies for magistrates, click here. You can download the application forms and then send them via email or post to the advisory committee.

Step 3 – attending introductory training

Once you have been selected to be a magistrate by the local advisory committee, you will then be expected to attend introductory training. This will be a basic training that covers the knowledge you will require within your role as a magistrate. This will be followed by further training, and by meetings with your mentor, who will be a senior magistrate.

Step 4 – swear your judicial oath and oath of allegiance

You will also be expected to swear the judicial oath in the same manner as a judge. This includes an oath of allegiance to the United Kingdom and its monarch, and an oath to serve the law effectively and appropriately in an impartial manner.

Step 5 – complete your first appraisal

At the end of your first 18 months as a magistrate, you will be expected to undertake your first appraisal. This will be conducted by a specially trained magistrate, who will observe whether you successfully demonstrate the competencies that are required of a magistrate.

Do magistrates get paid?

As a magistrate, you do not receive pay. Your role is entirely voluntary. However, you can collect reasonable expenses to cover your travel and other expenses incurred in your role as a magistrate. You will be expected to work for a total of 13 days, or 26 half days, per year and your employer must allow you to do so. They do not have to offer you paid leave for this time, and if you lose earnings as a result, you may be able to collect a loss allowance at a set rate.

Who cannot be a magistrate?

In theory, anyone can become a magistrate so long as they meet the basic requirements. This means in order to become a magistrate, you must demonstrate the core competencies required of a magistrate, and be over the age of 18 and below the age of 65. 

However, as it is a legal role, you may find that any sort of criminal record may make it unlikely for you to be able to volunteer your time as a magistrate. This is because it suggests you may have poor character, though the specific circumstances may be taken into account. Also, members of certain professions cannot be magistrates. If you are a police officer, traffic warden or member of the armed forces, you may not serve as a magistrate as this may create a conflict of interest.

Related occupations

If the thought of working in a legal setting interests you, but you cannot afford to be a volunteer, then there are other ways to undertake legal work. These other options include:

  • Legal adviser
  • Solicitor
  • Barrister
  • District judge