1. What magistrates do

Magistrates are volunteers who hear cases in courts in their community.

Each case is usually heard by 3 magistrates, including a magistrate who is trained to act as a chairperson.

A legal adviser in the court gives advice on the law and makes sure the magistrates follow the right procedures.

Criminal cases

All criminal cases begin in a magistrates’ court.

Magistrates pass the most serious crimes (eg murder, rape and robbery) to the Crown Court. Magistrates decide if the defendant should be:

  • kept in custody - eg a police or court cell
  • let out on strict conditions - eg to keep away from named places or people

Magistrates deal with crimes like:

  • minor assaults
  • motoring offences
  • theft
  • handling stolen goods

Magistrates can give punishments such as:

  • fines
  • unpaid work in the community
  • prison for up to 6 months (or up to 12 months for more than 1 crime)

Civil and family cases

Magistrates also hear some civil and family cases involving:

  • unpaid Council Tax
  • TV licence evasion
  • child custody and adoption
  • taking children into care

Only experienced magistrates who have had special training can hear family cases.