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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK


JPs on the legal front line

Magistrates deal with more than 95% of all cases

Government proposals to restrict the right to jury trial will affect not only thousands of defendants, but also the magistrates that will play a greater role in the justice system.

Under plans by Home Secretary Jack Straw, magistrates, rather than defendants, should decide whether a case should be heard before a jury.

[ image: Jack Straw has proposed changes to the legal system]
Jack Straw has proposed changes to the legal system
The proposals have already pushed the role of the magistrate further into the public eye - with questions raised over whether certain defendants, particularly those from ethnic minorities, would have faith in their judgement.

The system of magistrates - or Justices of the Peace - can safely be described as part of "the establishment" - with roots going back to the 12th Century.

But the Magistrates Association says the system increasingly reflects the social and ethnic diversity of modern Britain.

There are more than 30,000 lay magistrates in England and Wales - dealing with more than 95% of all criminal cases.

The split is about 50-50 between women and men.

Of these, 6% come from ethnic minorities - although the percentage varies from region to region to reflect local populations. In outer London, for instance, the figure is 25%.

Magistrates are also chosen to reflect different social groups.

Maximum sentence

Maximum levels are set to restrict any particular group from dominating in any one area - for instance a local committee may decide to recruit no more teachers as magistrates if they feel there are too many on their benches.

The powers of the magistrates are restricted to a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment, and a maximum fine of £5000 - although this can be raised in certain instances, such as environmental health breaches.

No formal qualifications are needed to became a magistrate, although applicants are expected to show "intelligence, common sense, integrity and the capacity to act fairly".

They are also expected to show communication skills and "knowledge of different cultures and recognition of discrimination".

Magistrates, who sit for an average of around 35 half days a year, are unpaid volunteers, although they do receive travel and subsistence allowances.

The upper age limit for magistrates is 70. There is no lower limit, although the youngest magistrate so far appointed was 27.

British nationality is not a requirement, but all candidates must take an Oath of Allegiance.

Among the responsibilities magistrates currently hold are decisions on requests for remanding in custody, applications for bail, ruling on guilt in lesser crimes, passing sentence, fines and deciding on the venue at which cases will be heard.

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