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Procedure in the magistrates court

This page, part of a set of materials taken from Law in action: learning through scripted role plays, looks at procedure in the magistrates court.

The magistrates court follows certain procedures and rules. Some of these are laid down in Acts of Parliament and regulations made under the Acts. Others are required through the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. The court also has conventions that are complied with because that is the tradition.

The magistrates are, within this framework, in charge of their own court, and, subject to the rules mentioned above, can determine how to conduct proceedings. They are advised on law and procedure by the clerk. The magistrates and clerk in some courts may appear severe, others may seem more relaxed – much depends on the personalities involved. Providing the court reaches decisions that are legally tenable and were arrived at fairly, the court has a general discretion as to how it conducts its business.

On the day

The court administrative staff organise each day’s proceedings. Lists are produced for the court naming each case to be dealt with. The usher announces the cases, sometimes in the order of the listing, but, more likely, in the order that the people concerned are ready – for example, a solicitor may have several cases on that day and once he or she is before the court all those cases may be heard in a block (that is one after the other).

The clerk identifies each defendant by name and usually reads out the relevant charges or other reason why the court is sitting. The clerk will probably tell the magistrates what applications (if any) are to be made and invite the advocates to address the court. If there are no applications (for example bail, legal aid, adjournments) the clerk will move on to the next stage – venue, plea, the sentencing hearing). In all matters the prosecution and defence get the chance to speak, giving their submissions for instance on bail or venue, or giving an outline of the facts and a plea in mitigation. In trials there is a well established procedure, with the prosecution bringing their evidence first, followed by cross examination by the defence. The process is repeated for the defence, with the prosecution cross examining. Both sides may make closing submissions. In closing, the prosecution is normally restricted to points of law raised by the defence.

Addressing the court

The magistrates are addressed through the chair, and he or she is referred to by the advocates as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. The magistrates are collectively called ‘Your Worships’ (not ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Honour’ – those terms are reserved for judges). The clerk is by convention called ‘Learned Clerk’. The advocates are referred to by their family names and their preferred title – Mr Jones, Ms Gupta or Mrs Smith. When addressing each other solicitors are called ‘My Friend’ and barristers ‘My Learned Friend’. Conventions are not legal requirements, but a failure to follow them can make life difficult and can rebound on the client, in the sense that the court may be displeased. This displeasure can be shown in all sorts of ways – magistrates are human after all!

Dress and appearance

So far as dress and appearances are concerned, the professional rules for barristers and solicitors call for modest attire and dark clothing. Suits are normally worn. There are no wigs and gowns in the magistrates court, other than for the usher, who may wear a black robe.

Defendants can appear as they wish, providing it is not offensive. During the poll tax disputes of the 1980s enforcement proceedings took place in the magistrates court. One defendant appeared in court dressed as a baked bean. When asked to identify himself he said his name was “A Bean from the planet Heinz”! The magistrate with some humour (in a tense situation given the protests that were ongoing) calmly said that the defendant was about to be brought down to earth!!

Last Modified: 4 June 2010