Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of lay magistrates

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As with any legal system the whole point is to give everyone a fair trail and this would, if it was from anyone’s point of view that didn’t live in the UK mean getting a professional, who knew exactly how to deal with any part of law. So why In Great Britain do we use non-legally trained members of the public to decide who is guilty and who isn’t. Does it not seem blatantly obvious that this is not the way to go forward in a modern society? Look around the world, what other civilized country uses incompetent members of the public to enforce the laws?

I would like to make it obvious from the start that I am against this system for reasons I will later expand on. The job of Justice of the Peace or better known as lay magistrate originates from 1195 when Richard I appointed “keepers of the peace”. They had very few powers to start with but by 1361 they had been duties such as control of weights and measures and responsibility of the highways. They have developed a significantly since then and they are now the backbone of the British legal system, dealing with about 98% of cases in the UK.

There are some 30,000 (approximately) lay magistrates in the UK that are actively in service aged between 18-65. They must live within 15 miles of the area they are commissioned to and do at least 26 half days a year. They aren’t paid for service apart from traveling expenses and meals. They aren’t legally trained but they are given training in making impartial and structured decisions. When they are in court they sit in threes as they aren’t legally trained. A single magistrate can make a mistake but it is much more unlikely for two or three to make the same mistake and thus giving a bit more reliability.

They are appointed by the lord chancellor on behalf of the sovereign. He receives recommendations from local advisory commities. People can put themselves forward to the commite or they can be put forward by a group for example a trade union. So you need to be in a respectable position in a community or doing well in your job. Otherwise you have to put yourself forward for which you will need a lot of spare time. An example of this is that over 40% of magistrates are retired. For either of these options you need to be middle aged or retired.

The local commite will interview the candidates to see if they have the qualities that in their eyes a person in the position of Justice of the peace should have. These include… * social awareness * good character * maturity * commitment and relability After being chosen as a trainee magistrate, one would have to go through a three section training course that tries to hone the competances necessary for the job. (if one wanted to become the chairman of the bench then an extra section would have to be taken) These are.. 1)managing yourself-such as conduct in court )working as a member of a team 3)making judicial decisions-impartial and structured decision making Magistrates have many of main functions; these include trying summary offenses-the least serious-, to deal with preliminary matters for cases which are going to be heard in the crown court, issuing warrants, proceedings concerning children under the children act 1989. Specially trained magistrates hear youth court proceedings. The use of magistrates rather than judges in this environment means that it is less formal and easier for the youth involved.

For many of the cases they hear it is simply a matter of deciding the punishment as for many of the cases they hear it is obvious who is guilty or the person will admit right at the start of the hearing to guilt or has already admitted guilt by post. One example of this could be excessively going over the speed limit This means that often little knowledge is needed into the law side of things and so there is no need to use professionals, as all they have to do is decide the punishment They can also deal with triable either way offences.

These are offences that can be tried either in the magistrates’ court or in the crown court. These are cases that include the like of theft, actual bodily harm and most drug offences. If a suspect doesn’t plea guilty or indicates he intends to plead not guilty, he can empower his right to elect trial in the crown court or if he fells it would benefit him then he can choose to be tried in the magistrates’ court. However, even if the defendant opts to go the magistrates’ court, the magistrates can decline the case if they feel they have inadequate powers, and send the case to the crown court for trial.

Overall this means that the case will go to the crown court if either the magistrates or the defendant thinks it should. The case can only go to the magistrates’ court if both the parties agree on it. With some of the more complex cases magistrates need to know about the laws that are involved in the case. They do this by referring to the clerk, who can give information on the laws but aren’t allow cannot give advice on how they should deal with the case. As magistrates aren’t legally trained they have limited powers compared to that of a judge.

The fine limit is 5000 and they can only sentence up to a 6 month jail term. When you take a glance at almost all of the cases they deal with this is perfectly adequate, but this means that if they are dealing with a case that involves anything above their power then they have to hand it up to a higher court. The backbone of a good legal system is the understanding of law by the people it covers, and thus can only be achieved if the system is either very simple or they are involved in the making and implementing of the laws.

Now in Great Britain the laws certainly aren’t simple but neither are they in any country and it would be amazingly hard to simplify the law so as everyone can understand it so that should be out of the picture. That leaves us with involving the people. This could be done in a number of different ways, for example there could be polls on which laws should be brought in or which everyone must take part in, or make law a mandatory subject in schools along with Maths and English. The first idea would involve the public and as they had helped to bring that law to place respect it more than if they hadn’t been involved at all.

The second idea would mean that from a young age people would understand and respect the laws that have been put upon them. When applying for the job there is little compensation for loss of earnings for the time missed when applying to the council and the training. This discourages working class people from applying. Whereas for people who are well of, will be more inclined to as they wont have any worried about loss of money. There is also the fact that people who are retired have little worries about loss of any money.

This means that anyone who isn’t middle class or retired is very unlikely to apply for the job. So people who apply are middle minded, middle class and middle aged. The use of magistrates means that although not everyone is represented most sections of the community around that are is represented and the feelings of that community are voiced though how the magistrates sentence different crimes. The cross section of ethnic minorities and women is wider with magistrates is greater than that of judges. Throughout history law has been the domain of the rich and high class.

It is no different nowadays with the amazingly expensive training required to become a lawyer, barrister or anything else for that matter that means that you have to come from a wealthy background to get into the job. Although it costs nothing to become a magistrate there is ill feeling to the job by people who wanted to pursue law as a career but as they couldn’t afford it didn’t. This means that although there are many people who would have like to do law but couldn’t afford it earlier don’t feel inclined to do it later in life.

So that leaves us with the middle class who are financially secure, and perhaps aren’t working, who feel that they might as well do something and so become a magistrate almost as a hobby of which they don’t really care. Most people would argue that they have local knowledge which yes they probably do, but really I don’t care if they have local knowledge because, knowing “Janet down the road has just had a baby” has nothing to do with the application of the law! With almost any case one of the magistrates will have in some way been affected by a similar act.

So let’s say someone was caught speeding just over the limit which would usually be a small fine but because magistrate A knew someone who was killed by someone who was speeding they decide to give a much heavier penalty. Magistrates are often biased towards the police and are more likely to believe them than the suspect. I think this is because they feel more sentence minded than judges as they as a normal member of the public want someone to get the blame for a crime whereas a judge would just want justice to be served.

It may also be because they have been brought up in a middle class home that taught them that police where like a beacon of light so how could they ever lie. What ever the reason this is a totally wrong way for 98% of the justice system to be organized. Would you like to be put on trial by a group that didn’t believe you so what ever you did, if the police say you did it you would get convicted. A case delt with by the magistrates court is on average much cheaper than if it is dealt with in the crown court.

This surely must mean that they aren’t as good a quality, I mean if you go to a shop and there is a TV that is 20% less expensive might be a lower quality. When its peoples futures and livelihoods on the line I’m sure everyone would want it to as good and accurate as possible. There is also the issue with the speed of it. There is always the complaint of how long legal cases take so people saying that the magistrates court is faster to many would sound like a great idea. But yet again I must point out that the time it takes is of the greatest of importance but for the fairness of the out come.

When I look at this point the phrase “slow and steady wins the race” comes to mind, and I think this is a very applicable idea in much of the legal system. Overall I think that the idea of using members of the public to decide court cases is a totally unreliable method which really shouldn’t be the main part of the legal system in england. I can see where the idea came from and it is well intended but it is just useless in a modern legal system due to the complex laws and bylaws.

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