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.
All criminal cases begin in a magistrates’ court.
Magistrates pass the most serious crimes (for example murder, rape and robbery) to the Crown Court. Magistrates decide if the defendant should be:
- kept in custody - for example in a police or court cell
- let out on strict conditions - for example to keep away from named places or people
Magistrates deal with crimes like:
- minor assaults
- motoring offences
- handling stolen goods
Magistrates can give punishments such as:
- 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.