Lay Magistrates

Lay Magistrates
Lay Magistrates
Quick Summary of Lay Magistrates

Lay magistrates, also known as justices of the peace, are members of the community who volunteer to serve as part-time judges in the legal system. Unlike professional judges, lay magistrates do not have legal training or qualifications but are selected based on their integrity, impartiality, and understanding of society. Lay magistrates preside over minor criminal cases, such as traffic offences, minor assaults, and low-level thefts, as well as some civil matters, in local Magistrates’ Courts. They work in panels of three, including a legally qualified clerk, and collectively make decisions on guilt, innocence, and sentencing. Lay magistrates play a crucial role in the administration of justice, bringing diverse perspectives and community insight to legal proceedings, and providing a link between the courts and the communities they serve.

Full Definition Of Lay Magistrates

Lay Magistrates deal with the vast majority of criminal cases in the English legal system. All criminal cases start in the Magistrates’ court, and around one million cases a year are heard by Magistrates.

They uphold the important principle in our legal system of trial by one’s peers. One of the great strengths of the English legal system is the participation of ordinary people in the administration of justice. The other area where this is seen in the criminal justice system is in the Crown Court, where juries are used.

Surprisingly, research shows that the public has little awareness of the role played by Lay Magistrates in our criminal justice system.

2000 Research by Morgan & Russell showed that just over 50% of the population knew that the majority of criminal cases were dealt with by Lay Magistrates 2001 Research by Professor Andrew Sanders showed that 40% of the population was unaware that Magistrates were unpaid volunteers drawn from the local community. Appointment of Lay Magistrates

There are approximately 29,000 Lay Magistrates in England and Wales. (In 2005, there were 28,253 Lay magistrates.) They are unpaid volunteers and they work part-time—26 half days per year.

Lay Magistrates are appointed by the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and the Lord Chancellor on the advice of the Local Advisory Committees.

Lay Magistrates do not need to have any formal legal qualifications. There are, however, some requirements which were set out by the Lord Chancellor in 1998. These are known as the six key qualities and are as follows:

  • good character
  • understanding and communication
  • social awareness
  • maturity and sound temperament
  • sound judgement
  • commitment and reliability

There are some other, more formal requirements:

  • be aged between 18 and 65
  • be prepared to sit for at least 26 half days per year
  • have no serious criminal record
  • not be an undischarged bankrupt
  • not be a member of the armed forces

About 1,500 Lay Magistrates are appointed every year. As mentioned, they are appointed from lists put forward by the Local Advisory Committees. Names are put forward to the Local Advisory Committees by all sorts of organisations, for example, Trade Unions & political parties, It is now possible for individuals to put themselves forward to the committee and apply themselves.

There is a two-stage interview process.

  • The first interview is used to find out more about the candidate’s personal attributes; the panel is particularly interested in the six key qualities mentioned above. The candidate will also be questioned to find out their attitudes on various criminal justice issues, such as drink driving and young offenders.
  • The second interview is aimed at testing the candidate’s judicial aptitude; this is achieved by a discussion of at least two case studies that are typical of those normally heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

Once the interviews are completed, the advisory committee will submit the names of the suitable candidates to the Lord Chancellor, who will then appoint new lay magistrates from this list.

Training Of Lay Magistrates

This is supervised by the Judicial Studies Board, which decides the key areas which Magistrates need training. The training itself is carried out locally, often by the clerk of the court.

In 1998, the Magistrates New Training Initiative (MNTI 1) was set up. This was amended by the Magistrates National Training Initiative (MNTI 2) in 2004.

This training is divided into four areas of competence:

  • Managing yourself: this focuses on some of the basic aspects of self-management in relation to preparing for court, conduct in court, and ongoing learning.
  • Working as a member of a team: this focuses on the team aspect of decision-making in the Magistrates’ Court
  • Making judicial decisions: this focuses on impartial and structured decision-making
  • Managing judicial decision-making: this is only for the chair of the bench and focuses on working with the clerk, managing the court, and ensuring effective, impartial decision-making

Advantages & Disadvantages Of Using Lay Magistrates


  • Local Knowledge: Lay Magistrates come from the local area and therefore have local knowledge, which will help them make fairer decisions in court.
  • Lack of Bias: Having a bench of three Magistrates avoids bias and gives a balanced view.
  • Gender Balance: Lay Magistrates come from a wider cross-section of society than professional judges. In particular, there is a greater gender balance, with 49% of Lay Magistrates being female.
  • Saves Money: Lay Magistrates are only paid expenses, saving the taxpayer money.
  • Saves Time: Lay Magistrates act as a filter, meaning only the most serious cases are heard in the Crown Court.


  • Prosecution Bias: Conviction rates in the Magistrates’ Court are much higher than in the Crown Court.
  • Too Middle Class: The middle classes is overrepresented on the bench. Far too few working-class people have the time to become Lay Magistrates.
  • Inconsistency: sentences vary greatly between different Magistrates’ Courts and even between different Lay Magistrates in the same court. There are also inconsistencies in the granting of bail.
  • Over-reliance on the Clerk: Lay Magistrates have little legal knowledge and rely too heavily on the Clerk of the Court.

This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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