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Who can be a magistrate?

Most people imagine courts are run by an experienced, legally-trained judge in wig and robes. But many cases across the country are heard by community volunteers.

95% of all of the UK's criminal cases are dealt with in a magistrates' court. Some of these are heard by legally-qualified district judges, who have experience as a lawyer and are permanently employed as judges. The rest are heard by volunteer magistrates.

These magistrates do not need any formal qualifications. They are given training when they are appointed, and can get advice from legally-qualified clerks.

Can anyone be a magistrate?

As long as they are over 18 and can make the time for it, almost anybody can become a magistrate. There are only a few exceptions:

  • Police officers, traffic wardens and members of the armed forces cannot become magistrates. This is to make sure that magistrates are impartial.
  • Some criminal offences can prevent a person from becoming a magistrate.

Why have volunteer magistrates?

There are a few advantages to having volunteer magistrates:

  • Practicality: There are nearly ten times more magistrates than judges in the UK. Without magistrates, we would have to find - and pay - many more judges.
  • Local knowledge: Using local volunteers means that magistrates understand the area they live in, so they can judge cases more appropriately.
  • Representation: One big problem in the judiciary is that most judges are still white men who went to a private school. It's a different story with magistrates. Around half are women, and 8.5% are from a minority ethnic background (only a little less than in the UK as a whole). The biggest problem is that there are not many young magistrates, because it is easier to volunteer when you are retired or can afford to take time off work.

How do you become a magistrate?

Applying to become a magistrate is a lot like applying for any other job. There is a form to fill in, and you have to provide references. There are usually two interviews before a decision is made.

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