The magistrates' courts used to be run by the Home Office but this function was given to the Lord Chancellor's Department in 1992. The organisation of the magistrates' courts was reformed by the Police and Magistrates' Court Act 1994 which amended the Justice of the Peace Act 1979. These two Acts have now been combined together in the Justice of the Peace Act 1997.
Lay magistrates have a long history in the English legal system, which dates back to the Justice of the Peace Act 1361, which gave judicial powers to appointed lay people. Their main role is dealing with criminals. There are about 30,000 lay magistrates, which are also known as justice of the peace, or JPs. They hear over one million criminal cases a year, which is 95 percent of all criminal trials, with the remaining being heard in the Crown Court. They are therefore often described as the backbone of the English criminal justice system.
They are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on the recommendation of local committees consisting largely of existing magistrates. This process gives rise to the criticism, perhaps justified, that the selection process procedures tend to favour the appointment of new magistrates whose views are compatible with existing members.
Magistrates must be aged between 27 and 65 at the time of appointment, though very few are in fact under 40, they must be in good health so they are sufficient to enable them to do the job and must live within or close to the area served by the court to which they are appointed. They must have satisfactory hearing, but in 1998 the Lord Chancellor appointed the first blind magistrate for over 50 years, and several other blind people have been appointed subsequently. According to an official handout from the Lord Chancellor's...