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The characters in a magistrates court

This page, part of a set of materials taken from Law in action: learning through scripted role plays, provides profiles of the characters usually involved in a magistrates court. (Nameplates for use with the role plays are available.)


On this page: magistrates | the court clerk | the usher | the police | advocates for prosecution and defence | probation and court welfare services | the press | members of the public | the defendant

We suggest, particularly so you can involve as many participants as possible, that you use three magistrates in each role play. The scripts do not provide speaking parts for the press or public, although the semi-scripted role plays could be adapted to allow for a probation report. They are not expected to address the court at any point, but to make matters fit with what happens in practice you could include people playing these roles – it will swell the numbers taking part even if they have no speaking role. The police are not essential in the role plays, and have not been written into the scripts.

The fully scripted role plays do not require the defendant to speak apart from identifying themselves and entering a plea. The semi-scripted trials are designed so that the defendant will give evidence through questioning by the advocates.

Magistrates

Depending on the matter being heard there will be between one and five magistrates sitting. There are two types of magistrates – the lay magistrate (not legally qualified) and what is now termed the district judge (until recently known as the stipendiary magistrate), who is legally qualified (as a barrister or solicitor). Both have the same function and powers, but the district judge tends to sit alone.

All the scripted role plays represent the type of hearings that are usually heard by a bench of three lay magistrates (or a district judge). One magistrate takes the chair and is the spokesperson for the bench, however the magistrates make their decisions jointly, and the majority view prevails in the event of any differences of opinion. The magistrates normally retire (go out to an adjoining room) if they need to discuss their decisions – particularly bail and sentencing.

The court clerk

The clerk’s role is very important – he or she acts as adviser to the court and generally controls proceedings. The clerk ensures that the court conducts its business in accordance with the relevant rules. There is always a clerk in each court, and one or more legally qualified clerks available in the court precincts. The advocates make themselves known to the clerk and tell him or her at what stage their case is and what they are seeking in terms of that particular court appearance. With this information the clerk is better able to manage the conduct of the hearing.

The usher

His or her job is to introduce each case by calling the defendant to the dock and telling the court who is representing whom. The usher is responsible for making sure that the comings and goings in the court (of which there are many) work smoothly.

As all good advocates know, getting on well with the clerk and usher can make the difference between getting your case on early or sitting through the morning’s proceedings before having your turn!

The police

Although the police do not have a direct role in court proceedings, they may well have a presence in court or in the precincts to maintain security and keep order if called upon to do so. They are not essential in the role plays, and have not been written into the scripts. The police (and/or private security personnel) bring defendants who are in custody to and from the court. Increasingly private security firms provide security services for the court, including supervising entrance into the court building itself.

Advocates for prosecution and defence

The prosecution is normally represented by a barrister or solicitor from the Crown Prosecution Service (the government department responsible for initiating and conducting prosecutions). In some cases prosecutions are brought directly by the person or body bringing the complaint (for example, the local council prosecuting for pollution or the Health and Safety Executive prosecuting for unsafe working practices). In some cases a member of the public can initiate a prosecution, but this is rare.

The defendant may be represented by a solicitor or barrister or may be unrepresented – this is a matter of choice for the defendant. Public funding may be granted if it is in the interests of justice, for example if the defendant runs the risk of imprisonment if convicted. This funding is means tested – if the defendant has more than a fixed level of income or capital, public funding may be refused (on the grounds that the defendant can afford to pay).

Advocates in the magistrates court do not wear wigs or gowns – just ‘office’ clothing. The advocates for each side often discuss the case before the hearing, so they can get an idea of what will be said. For example, there is no point in the lawyer for the defence spending time addressing issues in detail if the prosecution does not intend to raise objections, say to the grant of bail.

Probation and court welfare services

Each court has a representative of the probation or court welfare service at hand. They play an important role, helping the court with recommendations as to sentence and providing reports on the welfare of children, as well as on such issues as the availability of places in bail hostels. Probation officers also have the task of reporting to the court if a defendant is in breach of an order, for example has not complied with the requirements of a community service order.

The press

The court holds its proceedings in public (unless it directs otherwise), and members of the press regularly attend to report on proceedings. Providing the court has not issued restrictions, the press can report on the conviction and sentence of offenders and on the content of various proceedings. The press are not allowed into, or to report on, what happens in the youth or family courts. No recording apparatus is allowed in court, apart from a notebook or sketchpad.

Members of the public

Unless the court restricts it, all cases are open to the public – this is part of the idea of justice being done and being seen to be done. Anyone over 14 can attend court to observe. Whilst in court the public are expected not to disturb proceedings in any way.

If a group intends to visit the court it is a good idea to inform the court in advance. This allows the court to plan for visitors (the magistrates may, for example, be willing to meet with groups to discuss their work). The court can advise the group when would be best to visit and which court to sit in on. Most magistrates courts will have more than one court working at any one time – Sheffield for example has up to 16 different courts sitting.

The defendant

Last but not least is the defendant (or other parties in civil proceedings) – the reason for the court sitting. If the defendant is represented, it will not be necessary for him or her to say anything to the court other than to confirm personal details (name and address) and to answer any other questions the magistrates or clerk of the court may ask. If the case goes to trial the defendant may be called to give evidence.

If a defendant is not represented then he or she will be allowed to address the court at relevant points, for example to explain their personal circumstances or how they came to commit an offence (rather like a plea in mitigation, but without a lawyer speaking), or to question witnesses in a trial. In this way a ‘fair hearing’ should take place.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010