How to Become a JP
Magistrates or Justices of the Peace have existed since 1195 when Richard 1 entrusted knights to keep the peace in disorderly areas. Times have changed but the role is still a vital one in combating crime within local communities. No legal background is necessary but with training JPs will preside in a court and make decisions on sentences. In fact over 90% of all criminal cases are dealt with by magistrates.
BackgroundThere is a high demand for magistrates, with 28,000 volunteers in England and Wales alone. JPs preside at Crown Courts in England and Wales and JP Courts (were district courts) in Scotland. The work is mainly judicial although also involves licensing premises for the sale of alcohol. Men and women from most backgrounds can apply to become magistrates.
If an application is successful then candidates receive thorough training from the Magistrates Association (or Judicial Studies Committee in Scotland). If thinking of applying it is highly recommended to visit a local court first to get an idea of the work involved.
RoleJPs sit in court to hear criminal cases with two other magistrates and a clerk to advise on the law. Sitting days may be anything from half an hour to a whole day depending on business. They consider evidence and decide whether a case should be heard or adjourned and also have the power to grant or withhold bail. Magistrates reach a verdict on cases in Crown Courts and Sherrif Courts and if the defendant is found guilty confer the appropriate sentence.
In addition to criminal court work magistrates may sit on special committees e.g. to decide on betting shops, pub licensing and gaming clubs. They may also sit on Family Proceedings Courts which tackle a variety of child and family related issues.
Who Can Apply?Magistrates come from all walks of life. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 60 can apply (you retire at 70) and do not have to have a legal qualification. The main attributes needed for volunteering as a JP are integrity, ‘good character’, common sense and an ability to listen and be impartial. Other important qualities and leadership skills, maturity, and an understanding of human nature. It is essential to be able to follow both sides of an argument and analyse the information involved.
Applicants cannot have been made bankrupt or have been convicted of a serious crime. Additionally they must be able to sit for a minimum of 26-35 days a year (in England & Wales) or 12 days (in Scotland).
Some pepole in certain jobs, such as a Police Officer, can not apply to become a magistrate. Local Councillors and members of the Armed Forces can both be appointed as magistrates. Local Councillors will be appointed but will be advised not to adjudicate on certain cases. Members of the Armed Forces can also apply, however if they are to be based abroad for a period of time then they will be granted leave of absence or placed on the Supplemental List (i.e inactive or retired list) whilst they are based abroad. Employees of the Courts Service (including family members) will be advised on not adjudicating on certain cases.
A JPs appointment is on going until they resign or retire (at the age of 70). They need 3 references and must undergo an interview and assessment process. The application process usually takes around 3 months to process and many employers will allow staff time for this and for the fulfillment of magistrate’s duties. JP work is unpaid but magistrates can reclaim travel expenses and loss of earnings if applicable.
TrainingTo fulfil the important role of JP correctly a rigorous training programme is provided by Magistrates Courts Committees. It is compulsory and usually takes around 6 months. The aim is to establish high standards of practice. It takes the form of residential conferences, courses of instruction talks, lectures, training days, prison & court visits and practical exercises.
Topics covered include an introduction to judicial framework, elementary law and procedure, managing court business, communication skills, acting as a Chair and working in a team. A valuable part of induction includes spending time shadowing working JPs in local courts. Ongoing local training continues throughout a JPs term and the Clerks in every court advise JPs on aspects of the law. However JPs are solely responsible for their decisions.
To find out more contact the local Advisory Committee, Magistrates Court or the Secretary of the Commissions Office in England and Wales. In Scotland contact the local Sheriff Court or the Scottish Courts Service.