Magistrates' court (England and Wales)

In England and Wales, a magistrates' court is a lower court which hears matters relating to summary offences and some triable either-way matters. Some civil law issues are also decided here, notably family proceedings. In 2010, there were 320 magistrates' courts in England and Wales; by 2020, a decade later, 164 of those had closed. [1] The jurisdiction of magistrates' courts and rules governing them are set out in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.

All criminal proceedings start at a magistrates' court. Summary offences are lesser crimes (for example, public order offences and most driving matters) that can be punished under the magistrates' courts maximum sentencing powers of 12 months imprisonment, and/or an unlimited fine.[2] Indictable only offences, on the other hand, are serious crimes (e.g. rape, murder); if it is found at the initial hearing of the magistrates' court that there is a case to answer, they are committed to the Crown Court, which has a much wider range of sentencing power. Either-way offences are matters that can be dealt with either in the magistrates' court or in the Crown Court. Defendants have the option to elect for their case to be heard in the Crown Court, however magistrates also have the right to send the case to the Crown Court if at any time they consider that their sentencing powers are likely to be insufficient.[3]

In the magistrates' court, cases are usually heard by a bench of three (or occasionally two) justices of the peace, or by a district judge (magistrates' court). Criminal cases are usually, although not exclusively, investigated by the police and then prosecuted at the court by the Crown Prosecution Service. Some uncontested minor criminal matters (for example, road traffic offences, TV licensing matters, train fare evasion etc) can be dealt with by a single justice of the peace under the single justice procedure.[4]

Defendants may hire a solicitor or barrister to represent them, often paid for by legal aid.

There are magistrates in other common-law jurisdictions.

  1. ^ Sturge, Georgina (13 May 2020). "Constituency data: Magistrates' court closures". House of Commons Library. Retrieved 8 February 2023.
  2. ^ "Magistrates' Court". Retrieved 21 May 2022.
  3. ^ "Allocation of cases and Sending to the Crown Court | The Crown Prosecution Service". Retrieved 21 May 2022.
  4. ^ "Explaining the Single Justice Procedure in the magistrates' court - Inside HMCTS". Retrieved 18 February 2023.