Lay magistrates do not have to have any legal qualifications; with a few exceptions, anyone is eligible to serve as a magistrate and that includes blind people . However, the Lord Chancellor, who by section 10 Courts Act 2003 is responsible (on behalf and in the name of Her Majesty) for the appointment of magistrates (apart from those in Lancashire who are appointed by the Duchy of Lancaster ), will not permit the following to become lay justices: anyone outside the ranges of 18 to 65 years of age (with retirement at 70); anyone who is not of good character and personal standing; an undischarged bankrupt; anyone who, because of a disability, cannot carry out all of the duties of a lay justice; a serving member of Her Majesty’s Forces; a member of a police force or a traffic warden or any other occupation which might be seen to conflict with the role of a lay justice; and a close relative of a person who is already a lay justice on the same Bench. An individual may apply to become a lay justice and then be interviewed. The Advisory Committees conduct the interviews of would-be lay justices and decide whether the applicant is a suitable person. Essentially, Adivisory Committees are made up, for the most part, of lay justices; but the Lord Chancellor now requires at least a third of the membership to consist of other local people who are not lay justices. In making their recommendations, Advisory Committees not only consider the personal suitability of candidates but also the number of vacancies and the need to ensure that the composition of each bench broadly reflects the community which it serves. If the Advisiory Committee deems an applicant suitable for appointment, he will be recommended to the Lord Chancellor who will then consider the candidate’s personal suitability for appointment. If approved, the candidate will then be appointed as a lay justice to a particular ‘local justice area’ under the ‘commission of the peace’. Importantly, section 10(3) Courts Act 2003 provides that ‘every lay justice is, by virtue of his office, capable of acting as such in any local justice area (whether or not he is assigned to it
The major role of lay justices is in trying criminal cases where they will themselves decide on the innocence or guilt of the defendant. Over 95% of all criminal cases are dealt with in Magistrates Courts. Criminal offences are categorised into levels of seriousness . The least serious are known as summary offences, for example speeding, and may only be tried in a Magistrates Court. The next level are mid-range offences which are triable either in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court at the election of the defendant, and are known as either way offences. Examples here are driving whilst disqualified and theft. The most serious offences are known as indictable-only offences - for example, rape and murder - and these offences can only be tried in the Crown Court.
Their secondary role is to determine the mode (manner) of trial in either way offences i.e. whether summary or Crown Court. You see, it is often the case that a defendant who intends to plead not guilty will wish to be tried in a Magistrates Court rather than a Crown Court for a number of reasons, and it is then up to the court to decide which venue is most suitable after perhaps consulting the National Mode of Trial Guidelines .
Thirdly, lay justices arrange for the committal of an accused to the Crown Court for trial in the case of indictable offences. Now, committal proceedings have traditionally been the means by which a Magistrates Court determines whether there is sufficient evidence against an accused in respect of an indictable offence to justify sending him to the Crown Court to stand trial on indictment. They are held when an adult accused either comes before a Magistrates Court charged with an offence triable only on indictment, or comes before the court charged with an offence triable either way, the mode of trial having...