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Magistrates Court Act 1980

Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?

The Magistrates Court 1980 was an Act passed by Parliament which implemented the recommendations of the Law Commission in consolidating the procedures applying to the magistrates’ courts of England and Wales. The Act systematically codifies the practices and procedures in both civil and criminal matters before the magistrates’ courts and of the functions of the justices’ clerks. Both the Magistrates Court Act of 1952 and the Magistrates Court Act of 1957 were wholly repealed by the 1980 Act. Given that virtually all criminal cases begin in the magistrates’ court and more than 90% are completed there, it was deemed expedient to streamline and codify the practices and procedures of these courts into a single Act. Part 1 of the Act sets out the detailed provisions in relation to the courts’ criminal jurisdiction. Magistrates also deal with civil matters including family matters and non-payment of council tax, and Part 2 of the Act details the procedures and practices relating to the courts’ civil jurisdiction.

What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?

The magistrates’ courts were formally known as police courts, and under the 1980 Act, these courts have exclusive jurisdiction over summary criminal offences. These are the less serious criminal offences such as motoring offences, vandalism, low value criminal damage and minor assaults. The more serious indictable offences are dealt with in the crown court, but the magistrate will first generally decide whether to grant bail, and consider other legal issues such as reporting restrictions before referring the case on to the crown court. Bail will ordinarily be granted in England and Wales unless the court considers the accused may abscond, re-offend during the bail period or interfere with witnesses called on the case or with the case in general.

Under s17 and sch 1of the 1980 Act, many offences are triable either way which means they can be dealt with in either the crown or the magistrates’ court. The magistrates’ court will decide whether the defendant should be tried summarily or on indictment when it is triable either way, after having regard to all the circumstances of the case, and the representations of the crown prosecutor and the defendant under s19of the 1980 Act. The seriousness of the offence is a relevant factor to be considered, along with the maximum sentence available to the magistrates’ court as against that available in the crown court.

There are four sentencing options available to the magistrates. They may decide the accused be discharged; they may impose a fine; they may impose a community order which must include at least one of twelve specified conditions such as supervision and voluntary work, or custodial sentences of short duration. Fourthly, s31 of the Act provides that the maximum custodial sentence a magistrate’s court can impose is generally six months’ imprisonment. Therefore, if the magistrates’ court considers a more severe penalty ought to be imposed given the gravity of the offence, it will refer the matter on to the crown court where the case will be heard before a judge and a jury. If the court does decide to try the case summarily, the defendant must consent, because he may wish to avail himself of his right to have a trial by jury under s20.

Magistrates have the power under s97of the 1980 Actto issue a summons to procure the attendance of witnesses in England and Wales who are likely to be able to provide material evidence to the trial or hearing before them, providing it is in the interests of justice to do so. If the magistrate is satisfied on the evidence that such a witness may not attend under the summons, then he has the power to issue a warrant for the arrest of the witness and have the witness brought before the court.

If convicted of an offence in the magistrates’ court, the defendant may appeal to the crown court against his sentence if he pleaded guilty, and against his conviction if he pleaded not guilty under s108of the 1980 Act. Under s142of the 1980 Act, the magistrates’ court may re-open a case, and set aside or vary its decisions in relation to both conviction and sentence. A re-hearing of the case may be ordered where it appears to the court to be in the interests of justice to do so. Any party to a decision of the magistrates’ court who is aggrieved at the outcome of the decision may appeal to the magistrates to apply to the High Court for an opinion on the determination of the lower court. This process can be used where the aggrieved party seeks to challenge the decision on the basis that it is wrong in law, or in excess of its jurisdiction.

What main changes did it make to the law (key points)?

A consolidating Act, the Magistrates Courts’ Act 1980 details the practises, procedures and protocols to be applied in both civil and criminal matters heard by both lay magistrates who volunteer their services and have no legal qualifications, and district judges who are salaried members of the judiciary and qualified lawyers.

Summary criminal offences are tried before magistrates as well as some other less serious offences which are triable either way. As such the courts sentencing powers are limited and the maximum custodial sentence which can be imposed on an accused is limited to six months’ imprisonment under s31 of the 1980 Act.


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