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The jurisdiction of the magistrates court

This page, part of a set of materials taken from Law in action: learning through scripted role plays, provides information on the jurisdiction of the magistrates court. (Note: all the role plays are based on the magistrates court sitting as an adult court.)

On this page: | the adult criminal court | the youth court | the family proceedings court | licensing | other civil jurisdiction | other powers

The magistrates court has a very wide jurisdiction covering both criminal and civil proceedings, and the history of the court makes interesting reading. Magistrates are entrusted with the job of regulating many aspects of social life, ranging from keeping the peace (hence the other term for magistrate – Justice of the Peace or JP) to dealing with those accused of breaking the criminal law.

Criminal cases (cases where a person faces a criminal charge, and, if convicted, can be sentenced) take up the bulk of the court’s time. There are three broad types of criminal cases heard by magistrates those that start and finish in the magistrates court, those that begin there but are sent to the crown court for trial or sentence, and those concerning children (under 14) and young people (under 18). The magistrates also have an important role to play in authorising actions related to the criminal process, such as arrest, continued detention, search and seizure of property.

The civil jurisdiction of the magistrates court covers family and related cases, licensing, some debt collection and a variety of orders largely in relation to children.

Figures 1 and 2 show the structure of the civil and criminal courts in England and Wales. You can see from this how the magistrates court fits into the bigger picture.

Adult criminal court

Most of the accused in the adult court are 18 or over, although it is possible for someone under 18 to appear (if they are co-charged with an over 17 year old or have been charged with certain serious offences, such as murder). Special rules apply to cases heard in the youth court.

All cases involving post 17 year olds begin in the magistrates court, and the vast majority of these cases are dealt with to their conclusion there. A small percentage (less than 5%) end up in the crown court before a judge, and, if there is a trial, a jury.

In the magistrates court sitting in its ‘adult’ capacity the court must carry our different jobs depending on the stage of proceedings. A typical case might run like this:

A typical case in the magistrates court

Joe, who is 20, is charged with car theft. He tells the police that he did not steal the car, saying that he bought it from someone else, but he cannot produce a receipt or any other documentation.
Joe is arrested by the police and appears in court direct from police custody. He has one previous conviction for theft (shoplifting). At the first hearing he is represented by the duty solicitor. The prosecution has not yet had the chance to prepare the case papers.
Joe’s solicitor applies for an adjournment, so he can get a summary of the case against Joe (to find out what the prosecution have to say). He applies for public funding on Joe’s behalf (to meet the cost of representation) and makes a bail application (so Joe can be released from custody until the next hearing).
The prosecution does not oppose the applications, but wants a condition of curfew imposed if bail is granted Joe was arrested late at night with the car, and the prosecution say that such a condition might prevent the commission of further offences.
The court agrees to adjourn the case for three weeks (it really had to, to enable Joe’s solicitor to prepare the case), and grants public funding and bail with conditions (curfew and residency – Joe must live at a specified address and must stay in between 10 pm and 6 am).
At the next hearing three weeks later Joe appears in court with his solicitor. The papers sought by Joe’s solicitor have been provided, and now it is time to settle which court the case will be heard in. The magistrates decide to hear the case (they could have committed Joe to the crown court) – following guidelines issued to the court this case falls within the range and nature of cases suitable for hearing and possible sentence.
Joe agrees to have the case heard before the magistrates – he wants the case over and done with, and going to the crown court will mean more delay. Also, he has been advised that in the crown court the judge’s powers of sentence (if he pleads or is found guilty) are greater than in the magistrates court.
Having now had the opportunity to see the strength of the case against him (as revealed in the prosecution papers) and having discussed the case with his solicitor, Joe pleads guilty. The case is adjourned for a pre-sentence report to be prepared by the Probation Service. Joe’s solicitor applies for bail on the same terms, and the court agree to this.
At the next hearing four weeks later the prosecution reads out the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence and reveals (since Joe has pleaded guilty already) that Joe has one previous conviction for theft – 18 months before.
Joe’s solicitor addresses the court to explain how Joe became involved in the offence – the car had been left open with the keys in and Joe took it on the spur of the moment. The solicitor explains that Joe has recently found work after a long period of unemployment. He lives with his parents. He very much regrets stealing the car. The car has been recovered and returned to its owner.
The court hears from the probation officer and decides to impose 60 hours of community punishment.

In this case there have been three appearances, one public funding application, two bail applications, venue determination (deciding which court will hear the case), a guilty plea, a plea in mitigation and a sentencing decision. The case could have gone to trial, or could have been committed to the crown court for trial or sentence. In these cases there would have been additional stages to the proceedings.

The various stages described above are reflected in the role plays, and students and tutors can act out the scenarios. Those playing the role of the advocates can make their applications and submissions (that is present the points from their perspective). The ‘magistrates’ can, in consultation with the clerk, make their decisions and give their reasons for them. Under the Human Rights Act 1998 the court must allow a fair hearing to take place, with each side given the chance to be heard. The court must reach its decisions impartially.

The magistrates court must hear ‘summary’ only offences, for example most motoring offences, drunk and disorderly, common assault. Many offences are triable ‘either way’, which means that either the court or the accused can choose to have the case heard by the crown court or by the magistrates. Cases in this category include theft, more serious assaults and drugs offences. Certain cases must be sent to the crown court. These include murder, rape and arson. Magistrates’ sentencing powers are limited by what the law sets for each offence, and are subject to a maximum limits – a fine of £5,000 and six months imprisonment (12 months for two or more offences).

In the adult court therefore the magistrates determine bail, guilt or innocence, and, if appropriate, sentence. The court, principally through its administrative officers, also carries out a number of other important functions, including dealing with public funding applications and witness orders, plus a host of related paperwork to ensure fair and smooth case management.

If the case is sent to the crown court for trial or sentence the magistrates must check whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant referring the case to the judge. This is known as a committal hearing, and takes place once a decision has been taken on venue. It is often a paper-based exercise. Some cases bypass the committal process where a case has to be heard by the crown court, for example, murder. Guilt is not decided at this point – just whether there is a case to answer. Once a case has been committed to the crown court the magistrates are no longer involved.

Figure 2, depicting the structure of the criminal courts in England and Wales, shows the ways in which appeals can be made against the outcome of decisions made in the magistrates courts.

Youth court

The youth court deals with cases where the accused is between the ages of 10 and 18. The magistrates sitting in the youth court are selected from a trained panel. The court sits either in purpose built accommodation or in a courtroom that is not being used by the adult court. The proceedings are, on the face of them, rather less formal than those of the adult court, although to determine guilt or innocence the criminal rules of evidence and the burden and standard of proof are the same (the prosecution must prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt). The court has limited and special sentencing powers. The parents of the accused are also summoned to court, and can be made the subject of the court’s sentence.

The youth court works closely with the youth offending team in the area and is guided by two considerations – the welfare of the child/young person and the prevention of offending by juveniles. Evidence from Scotland suggests that using a specialist panel that brings together all those concerned with younger offenders (police, schools, parents, children and the courts) produces a more coherent response and possibly has a more effective outcome. The youth court is therefore somewhat different in approach, powers and procedures than the magistrates court sitting in its adult role.

Unlike the adult version, the youth court is not open to the general public.

Family proceedings court

The magistrates court has an important role to play in family matters. The family proceedings court (formerly known as the domestic court) sits in private – only the parties and court officials can be present. The magistrates sitting in this court are specially trained.

The jurisdiction of the court covers many aspects of family life and domestic disputes:

  • domestic violence – the court can issue orders designed to prevent such abuse taking place
  • relationship breakdown – the court can issue orders for the financial support of children, as well as orders affecting where the child lives (and with whom) and who can have contact with him or her
  • adoption – the court can issue orders in cases where parental responsibility for a child is transferred from one or both natural parents to the person making the application for adoption
  • care proceedings – the court can issue orders involving the local authority in the day to day responsibility for children who are at risk or in need of support
  • truancy – the court can issue orders where children are not attending school on a regular basis
  • parents and grandparents can apply to the court for a variety of orders
    The court is assisted by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officers. Reports by a Children and Family Reporter are often used to help determine what course of action would be in the child’s best interests. The welfare of the child is the primary concern of the court.


Up to 2005 the magistrates court carried out one particular regulatory role – the grant or refusal of licences to run a variety of activities:

  • liquor licences (required by those who sell beer, wines and spirits to the public) controlling who is authorised to sell alcohol and where (and when) it can be sold
  • betting and gaming licences
  • licences for public entertainment
    Such licences can radically alter the shape and nature of towns and cities. This function is now being transferred to local authorities, but an appeal against a refusal still lies with the magistrates court.

Other civil jurisdiction

The magistrates court has a specific role to play in the enforcement and recovery of council tax payments – the tax paid to local councils by residents in that area. A variety of orders can be made to establish liability and to enforce an order, including attachment of earnings (compelling an employer to deduct the ordered payment from an employees wages) and imprisonment for wilful refusal to pay.

Other powers

Magistrates perform important functions before defendants ever appear in court. People can appear in court direct from police custody – where they have been arrested and go to court before being released. However, many cases begin by the court issuing a summons, a court order compelling the person it is addressed to to appear before the court on a specified day. To issue a summons the person complaining of the offence or other grievance must go before a single magistrate and explain why he or she thinks a summons should be issued. If the magistrate agrees, the summons will be issued.

The court can also issue warrants – for arrest, removal to a place of safety, search of premises and seizure of property. If, for example, a person does not attend court – breaching their bail or failing to answer the summons – the court can issue a warrant for that person’s arrest. He or she will then be brought to court as soon as they can be found. The police carry out this job.

If the police wish to detain a person for questioning beyond 36 hours they must get an order from the magistrates court authorising this. Reasons for continued detention must be given.

As Justices of the Peace magistrates have an ancient power to keep public order, and to this end they can impose orders on individuals to keep the peace (known as a bind over). This can be imposed regardless of whether a person is convicted of any crime.

Magistrates are also authorised to sign certain documents, for example statutory declarations and passport applications.

Last Modified: 9 December 2010