Lay Magistrates - A Democratic Jewel Beyond Price
Understanding lay magistrates
Lay magistrates are part-time judges in the Magistrates Courts and they are lay people who might not have a legal qualification. They are also called Justices of Peace and there are about 30 000 of them (there are only about 100 District Judges in the Magistrates Courts) working as part-time for at least 26 half days after receiving their training.
Lay magistrates are appointed by the Lord Chancellor upon recommendation from the Local Advisory Committee (LAC) which consist of 12members - current magistrates and ex-magistrates as well as non-magistrates (lawyers, doctors, etc).
- To obtain a wider pool of candidates so that lay magistrates can be more representative in all aspects of society.
- Is done through advertisements in newspapers, radio and even online.
Six key qualities emphasized:
- Good character
- Good understanding and communication
- Social awareness
- Maturity and sound temperament
- Sound judgement
- Commitment and reliability
- Live nearby the area - to have local knowledge
- Aged between 18 - 65
- No serious criminal records
- Be able to commit at least 26 half days each year
- Undischarged bankruptcy
- Not a member of the forces
- First stage - Seeks for six key qualities
- Second stage - Examines candidates' potential judicial aptitude (eg. discussion on at least two common case studies)
The usage of lay magistrates actually actively involves the participation of lay people into the administration of justice and therefore gains public confidence. This is because the defendants might feel unfair if he are to be convicted by a District Judge, who is of higher class than him. However, if he was convicted by a lay magistrate - a layman - this would definitely seem fairer. Such principle must not be under valued because justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done. In short, the usage of lay magistrates is a democratic jewel beyond price.
Lack of Bias
There is a panel of three lay magistrates to hear a case and therefore this provides a balanced view. If there are to be biases, then they would have been cancelled by each other's. In addition, lay magistrates are more representative in all aspects of society. About 49 percent are women and ethnic minorities are also well represented compared to District Judges who mainly consists of white males. This therefore provides an impartial trial and upholds the rights to a fair trial of individuals under Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
As lay magistrates work at their local justice area, they have the local awareness of the patterns of crimes and social events which the District Judges could not provide. It equips them with the background understanding of the defendants and hence allows them to give better judgement on tough decision making and sentencing which undeniably makes the legal system fairer.
Other advantages : cheaper and faster
As the lay magistrates always hear cases and receive evidences from the police and Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS) prosecutor, they are believed to have a high tendency of believing them. Such situations affect their judgement and is unfair for the defendants. This is clearly shown in the criminal statistics published annually - Magistrate Courts always have lower acquittal rate than the Crown Courts.
Inconsistency in Sentencing
As lay magistrates do not have a strict rule for sentencing, the sentences given varies at different areas. This is criticized as being unjust as different punishments are given for similar offences.
Over Reliance on Clerk
Most lay magistrates are not legally qualified as anyone living in the local justice area can be appointed and there is a high demand for lay magistrates (30 000+) due to lack of workforce. As they have low legal knowledge, they depend too much on the clerk - their legal adviser . In most cases, they learn the point of law involved on the spot and try to apply it into the case and this is condemned as it is not fair for the defendants - justice is not seen to be done.