Becoming a Magistrate

Reasons to become a Magistrate
Becoming a Magistrate is a unique way of serving the local community. People have many different reasons for applying, but this sense of service seems to be one of the most common. Being a Magistrate is also a good way of seeing how the criminal justice system works, improving a person's communication and decision making skills and gaining a greater understanding of issues affecting the local community.

The commitment involved
A significant time commitment is required to be an effective Magistrate. The minimum expectation is that every Magistrate will sit the equivalent of 13 full days a year. Those sittings could be full days, half days or a combination of the two. The overwhelming majority of Magistrates sit far in excess of that minimum. In my area it is not uncommon for Magistrates to sit every week and complete 50 or more full sitting days a year. During the first year after appointment a new Magistrate's workload is likely to be heavier than normal, because they need to complete a series of mentored sittings and training days.

Magistrates are not paid for their judicial duties, but can claim allowances to cover their travel, subsistence and any loss of earnings incurred as a result. Details of the current rates can be viewed on the Magistrates Association website.

It should also be mentioned that any newly appointed Magistrate will be expected to sit at several different court houses, which may involve a considerable amount of travel. Sitting at different venues allows a Magistrate to gain experience of a wider variety of the court's work.

  • The minimum appointment age for Magistrates is 18. The statutory retirement age is 70.
  • Generally speaking, candidates over the age of 65 will not be appointed to the magistracy.
  • British nationality is not a requirement, but candidates must be prepared to take the Oath of Allegiance.
  • Candidates in the process of applying for asylum or indefinite leave to remain in the UK are ineligible for appointment to the magistracy.
  • Historically candidates could only apply to become a Magistrate in the area they lived or worked in, but this requirement has now been relaxed. That said, candidates should have good local knowledge of the area they apply to.
  • Candidates' general health must be good enough to allow them to perform their full range of judicial duties if appointed (e.g. they must be able to sit and concentrate for long periods of time). Applications are welcomed from people with disabilities, who could perform their judicial duties either unassisted or with reasonable adjustments.
  • Certain occupations and activities undertaken by a candidate may affect their eligibility for appointment as a Magistrate. See here for further information.
  • Candidates will not be appointed as a Magistrate if they wouldn't command public confidence. This means that any candidate who has been convicted or subject to a court order, whether criminal or civil, is unlikely to be appointed.
  • Candidates recently convicted of serious motoring offences, or several minor motoring offences, are unlikely to be appointed.
  • Careful consideration will be given to the application of a candidate with family or close friends who have been convicted or subject to a court order. Candidates will not appointed if their association with other people calls into question their standing as a Magistrate or brings the magistracy into disrepute.
  • Candidates who are undischarged bankrupts will not be appointed to the magistracy.
The six key qualities
There are six key qualities that all Magistrates are expected to demonstrate. These will be assessed at every stage of the application process. The six qualities are:
  • Good character:
    • Magistrates must:
      • have personal integrity, be circumspect and able to maintain confidences; and
      • have nothing in their private or working life, or in the lives of their family or close friends, which could bring them or the magistracy into disrepute.
  • Understanding and communication:
    • Magistrates must:
      • be able to communicate effectively with colleagues, court users and court staff; and
      • be able to comprehend relevant facts reasonably quickly, follow evidence and arguments, and concentrate, often for long periods of time.
  • Social awareness:
    • Magistrates must:
      • appreciate and accept the need for the rule of law in society;
      • display an understanding of wider social issues, such as the causes and effects of crime; and
      • have respect for, and some understanding (to be developed through training) of people from different ethnic, cultural or social backgrounds.
  • Maturity and sound temperament:
    • Magistrates must:
      • be able to relate to, and work with, others;
      • have a sense of fairness and be considerate and courteous; and
      • be open-minded and willing to consider the views and advice of others.
  • Sound judgement:
    • Magistrates must:
      • be able to think logically, weigh arguments and reach a balanced decision; and
      • be objective, and have the ability to recognise and set aside their prejudices.
  • Commitment and reliability:
    • Magistrates must:
      • be willing and able to undertake the minimum sitting requirement of 13 days, or (where that is not possible) 26 half-days per year, and mandatory training; and
      • be able to undertake their duties on a regular basis.  
Prior to application
There is an expectation that Magistrate candidates will have undertaken at least one, preferably several, court visits prior to submitting their application form. The local Advisory Committee - the body tasked with recruiting, selecting and recommending potential Magistrates - is not obliged to consider applications from anyone who has not undertaken these visits.

The application form
The application form can be downloaded from the Ministry of Justice website. Usually there are far more applicants than vacancies, so the Advisory Committee sets a narrow window of time for receipt of completed application forms. It is common for application forms to be considered in the order they are received. The Advisory Committee might decide on a fixed number of satisfactory application forms that will proceed to the next stage, with all forms received after that being rejected.

All new candidates are expected to provide the details of three referees, the first of whom must be a current or most recent employer. These referees may be contacted before the first stage interview, but more commonly they'll only be asked to provide a reference for those candidates selected for a second stage interview.

First stage interview
If the application form has been completed to a satisfactory standard, then it is possible the candidate will be invited for a first stage interview (see our article about the Magistrate Interview Process). Normally the Advisory Committee invites three times as many candidates for first stage interview as it has vacancies. The purpose of the first stage interview is to establish if a candidate demonstrates the six key qualities mentioned earlier. Much of the discussion will revolve around the information provided in the application form. The interview panel will be seeking to establish the candidate's motivation to become a Magistrate and whether they can offer the commitment required. All Magistrates must undertake to sit at least 13 days (or 26 half days) per year and there is an expectation they will serve for at least 5 years if appointed.

The interview will begin and conclude with the candidate being asked the good character background question: "Is there anything in your private or working life, past or present, or the lives of your family or friends, which could damage your credibility as a Magistrate if it became known to the public?"

An affirmative answer does not necessarily bar a candidate from progressing to a second stage interview, but will definitely be explored further.

The interview will normally be conducted by three members of the Advisory Committee, of which at least one of whom will be a serving Magistrate and another a lay (non-Magistrate) member. It will normally take place at a court building. The interview panel will ask a series of prepared questions and record the responses given by the candidate. At the end of the interview, they will score the candidate against strict criteria set by the Ministry of Justice. In theory a candidate that weakly demonstrates the six key qualities can progress to a second stage interview. In practice vacancies will be limited and only the highest scoring candidates will go forward.

Second stage interview
If it has not already done so, the Advisory Committee will request references prior to the second stage interview. Candidates will be asked to provide at least three forms of identification to enable their identity to be confirmed. This will include at least one of the following:
  • passport, or
  • driving licence, or
  • full birth certificate.
Plus at least one of the following:
  • utility bill, or
  • bank statement, or
  • credit card statement (or similar).
The purpose of the second interview is to make a preliminary assessment of the candidate's judicial aptitude. Any issues arising from the candidate's references will also be explored. The candidate will be given half an hour or so to complete two exercises, which will then form the basis of discussion during the interview. Candidates are allowed to refer to their notes and the text of the exercises during the interview. The two exercises are:
  • Case study exercise: Candidates will be given a case study about a fictional crime to consider. They will subsequently be questioned about the circumstances of the crime, including any aggravating/mitigating factors.
  • Ranking exercise: Candidates will be given a list of about 10 fictitious crimes, from which they select the four most severe in their opinion. They will subsequently be questioned about their choices. Candidates aren't expected to know all the right answers, but will be expected to demonstrate sound logic for arriving at their particular choices.
The second stage interview is likely to include questions that test the candidate's understanding of the causes of crime, purpose of sentencing and criminal justice system. Some of these questions will be asked in relation to the local area.

The interview will begin and conclude with the good character background question.

After the second stage interview the panel will decide whether or not to recommend the candidate for appointment as a Magistrate. The panel's decision will need to be ratified by the full Advisory Committee, before the Committee sends the recommendation to the Ministry of Justice. The Senior Presiding Judge has the final decision over which recommendations he/she accepts, so it could be several months before the candidate learns the final outcome of their application.

New Magistrates take the judicial oath at a swearing in ceremony before they embark on their first court sitting.

Further Reading
We have covered the most important points of the application and interview process above, but there are several books exploring these issues in greater depth: