Magistrates' Court Needs Reform

01 February 2002


While crown courts attract most attention, over 95% of cases in England and Wales are dealt with by the magistrates' courts. But even as the Government prepares to bring forward proposals for criminal courts reform, the magistrates' court system still looks in danger of being neglected.

But there is a real need for reform. Evidence shows that the public have less confidence in magistrates' courts than in trial by jury. 'Magistrates' Courts and Public Confidence - a proposal for fair and effective reform of the magistracy', (full text as .pdf) concludes that reform of the magistrates' court system is needed to improve fairness for the majority of those who pass through the criminal justice system.

The report, commissioned by the Civil Liberties Trust from Liberty and published this week, proposes reforms to inspire greater public confidence, make the magistracy more socially representative, and create a clear separation between the fact-finding and law-finding functions of magistrates. To achieve these aims, the report recommends a significant reform to the nature and role of the lay magistracy.

For contested cases:
- Magistrates should sit in mixed panels - of three lay magistrates and one District Judge.

- The lay magistrates should deal with issues of fact only; the District Judge should have no role in determining facts, and should consider issues of law and sentencing only. (This should increase the consistency of sentencing (by professional District Judges) and improve the quality of legal advice to the bench. It should also, with the changes below, help make the approach to fact-finding more comparable with that of a jury and more representative of the views of society).

-The numbers of lay magistrates and the breadth of their selection should be increased to enable them to become more representative of society.

A reduction in the legal training needed for lay magistrates and changes to the demands on their time should make recruitment from a far broader social range possible. This - and the result of a more socially representative lay magistracy - should be actively pursued.

Mary Cunneen, the Liberty associate director who headed this research project, says:

"Our approach seeks to make best use of the different qualities that lay and professional magistrates can bring to the bench - and to create a practicable system that will inspire at least some of the public confidence enjoyed by the jury system. "

"Now is surely the time for the Government to look at improving the quality of justice in magistrates' courts".

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The Trust commissions Liberty to carry out much of this work. Liberty is one of the UK's leading civil liberties and human rights organisations.