Court personnel: judiciary, officials, juries
The judiciary are perhaps the most prominent amongst those involved in running the court. The largest group of judges are lay magistrates - formally titled justices of the peace. The word "lay" means that these are ordinary citizens who are not legal professionals - they have no legal training and are appointed not for any legal expertise but in order to ensure that the local community is involved in the running of the legal system and that its substantive decisions - who is guilty or innocent and what the law means - reflect to some extent community values. There are around 30,000 lay magistrates. They sit as groups of three (as a "bench"), though sometimes a shortage of magistrates means there are just two (but it is not lawful to have just one). The lay magistrates preside over criminal trials in the magistrates courts, which deal with the vast majority of criminal cases.
This very heavy reliance upon lay members of the public in the running of the courts system is centuries old but it is unusual in comparison with many other countries. Some of the controversies which arise are as follows:
An increasing number of magistrates courts now make use of stipendiary magistrates. These are professional lawyers (most were either barristers or court clerks before taking this office) who are paid (a stipend) to act as full-time lawyers. There are in fact only around 100 full-time stipendiary magistrates (half in London), but their number is growing, and as it is reckoned that one stipendiary can perform the work of around 30+ lay magistrates, their presence is significant. (see Stipendiary Magistrate Appointments through the Lord Chancellor's Department pages) From the governments point of view, their efficiency is very desirable. Nevertheless, the Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine) has emphaised the principle of lay involvement:
"....I have no plans for a wholesale replacement of the lay magistracy by stipendiary magistrates...Without the lay magistracy, there would be a justice system - but it would be much less of the people, by the people, and for the people."
(Presidential Address to the Annual General Meeting of The Magistrates Association, 11 October 1997)
Another interesting speech is again by The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, Ministerial Statement to the House of Lords: "The organisation of the Magistrates' Courts," 29 October 1997.
See The Place Of The Magistrates Court In The English Judicial System and The English Magistrate pages.
See also the Lord Chancellor's Department's The Magistrates' Courts Service pages.
In the Crown Court, dealing with more serious criminal cases, the court personnel involves not only members of the judiciary but also a jury.
The Crown Court judiciary:
The trial is presided over by a judge whose functions are to ensure the fair conduct of the proceedings and also to give rulings on points of law. The judges also determine the sentence if the defendant is found guilty. At the end of the presentation of evidence, the judge "directs" the jury as to the law to be applied. This can involve quite complex instructions as to the law on a given subject. Ususally, judges will also summarise and analyse the facts for the jury - but should not pass comment on them, save where directed to do so by law. An important example of the latter is that judges may now make adverse comments if a suspect fails to give evidence in court about a defence being relied upon.
Criminal Justice and
Public Order Act 1994, s.35
The judges are almost all former barristers. Some will be High Court out "on circuit" from London, who will stay at a provincial centre for a couple of weeks. More permamently assigned to a particular area are circuit judges. But many cases are heard also by Recorders or Assistant Recorders - part-time barristers from private practice.
The Crown Court jury consists of 12 persons, aged 18 to 70, drawn from the electoral register of local community according to rules set out in the Jury Act of 1974. They are meant to be a random cross-section of society and, like magistrates, to reflect back community standards into how the law is applied. The jury considers the facts according to the law as directed by the judge. The consideration takes place in private - the jury "retires" to a closed room where they may not discuss the case with anyone else
Moving to civil cases, both in County Court and High Court cases, there will be a presiding judge who will decide both facts and law. It is possible to have a jury in some cases (probably most common in cases of defamation) but it is not common.
Most county court cases are heard by circuit judges; lesser value claims are dealt with by a district judge who also deals with "interlocutory" hearings (ie pre-trial procedural disputes).
The High Court is divided into three divisions, and the judiciary varies accordingly:
- the Queens Bench Division - the head is the Lord Chief Justice, but the cases are dealt with by around 50 High Court judges (sometimes called "puisne" judges)
- the Chancery Divsion - the head is the Vice Chancellor and there are around a dozen High Court judges
- the Family Division - the head is the President, assisted by over a dozen High Court judges
As for the appeals courts, these consist entirely of professional judges who have been promoited, originally from the High Court. The Court of Appeal consists of Lord Justices of Appeal and is headed by the Master of the Rolls on the civil side and the Lord Chief Justice on the criminal side. Appeals are usually heard by three judges. The House of Lords is headed by the Lord Chancellor who is the head of the judiciary and is involved in the appointment of all other judges. As well as the Lord Chancellor, there are Lords of Appeal in Ordinary - commonly called "Law Lords" - who sit in benches of five per case.
The technical quality of the professional judiciary is probably higher than at any time. They are all experienced advocates, and in addition there is now training for judicial work through the Judicial Studies Board. Nevertheless, criticisms are made of the judiciary from time to time that they are not necessarily skilled at running a court - they can appear rude and remote to ordinary people. They are certainly not representative of a cross-section of society - women and ethnic minorities are under-represented. The position of the Lord Chancellor, who is also a politician and a member of the cabinet, is also very controversial and seems to undermine the idea of judicial independence.
Background information about the Lord Chancellor's Department is available here and Judicial Statistics are available here.
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Last Updated 18 October, 1998.
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