Should Magistrates Have a Formal Legal Background?
The magistracy is one of the oldest social institutions within Great Britain. Magistrates’ courts have a history that stretches back over 800 years, ever since King’s courts were established where prominent people from local communities dispensed justice in the name of the King. Today, of course, the role of magistrates is an officially voluntary position. Anyone above the prescribed age and without any conflicts of interest can apply to become a magistrate.
- Magistrates are members of the wider society and are not required to have any legal background or formal training in the field of law.
- To become a magistrate, one needs to be socially aware, have the motivation and disposition to be fair and objective and the time and inclination to contribute their efforts.
- Magistrates do not get paid, except for compensation for travel and accommodation expenses, as well as salary compensation for missed work.
- Magistrates are required to contribute 26 half days or 13 full days per year to hear cases in court.
Magistrates’ courts handle minor offence cases such as theft, drug abuse, road and traffic offences, as well as civil cases. More serious cases or long standing cases are handled either by professionally trained judges or barristers. They are not required to be professional lawyers or have any background in the law whatsoever.
But is this ideal, and would the justice system, that magistrates’ courts are such an integral part of, benefit if magistrates were to have a formal legal background?
Although those who qualify to become magistrates receive brief training in how the system works, this is nowhere close to a formal law degree or does not in any way qualify an in depth understanding of how the law works. Indeed, magistrates rely on their experience, and personal judgement to arrive at decisions.
However, considering the fact that the area of law is saturated and over-subscribed, we now have vast numbers of formally qualified lawyers who could make ideal potential candidates for the magistracy. These people might actually be in a much better and much more informed position to hear court cases and dispense justice than lay members of society!
- We have a huge resource of legal practitioners and lawyers who are formally qualified and who would make excellent potential candidates for becoming magistrates.
- Making it mandatory for magistrates to have a proper law degree or a formal background in the legal profession will mean that magistrates’ courts could probably handle a wider range of cases, and even more serious and long standing cases which at the moment they do not.
- This can reduce the burden on higher courts, and improve the efficiency of the justice system, making dealing with cases faster and far more effective.