Huddersfield magistrates: the ‘ordinary people’ who uphold the law - read our feature
Dec 29 2009 by Sam Casey, Huddersfield Daily Examiner
Huddersfield magistrate Eileen Marchant has given up the post of chairman of the bench after her three year stint. Here, she tells reporter Sam Casey about the work of the ‘ordinary people’ responsible for enforcing the law.
MAGISTRATES shoulder a significant responsibility.
About 97% of criminal cases in England and Wales are dealt with by justices of the peace.
They range from relatively minor offences, like failing to pay for car insurance, to more serious cases like assault and burglary.
While the most serious cases, and other ‘either-way’ matters in which an accused person has the option to take the case to a higher court, are dealt with in front of a judge and jury, magistrates’ courts still handle the vast majority of cases.
Yet those who sit on benches across the country have no special qualifications to punish people who break the law. They are not law graduates or legal experts and do not require any formal qualifications.
Their main credentials are less tangible: they are expected to be of sound judgement and personal integrity and able to commit at least 26 half-days a year to sit in court.
And their services are entirely voluntary.
Eileen Marchant, 65, has been a magistrate for 22 years and chairman of the bench for the last three.
She worked as a school improvement officer when she started and still works as a policy adviser for the Association for Physical Education.
She said: “I have been a magistrate since 1987, which has been very challenging but also very rewarding.
“Being chairman has been a great honour and privilege and I have always tried to represent the views of all the magistrates on the Huddersfield bench.”
Ms Marchant believes magistrates face unfair criticism for handing out what are perceived as lenient sentences, especially because they must work within concrete guidelines.
According to the structured sentencing process, before handing down a sentence, magistrates must identify the appropriate starting point.
This means that they take into account the nature of the offence and consider what the minimum sentence would be.
They must then consider the effect of aggravating factors, for example whether the offence was carried out as part of a group, and mitigating factors, like provocation, that would reduce their culpability.
A preliminary view of the appropriate sentence is then formed, but before a final decision is made they consider any offender mitigation, for example if the accused person shows genuine remorse.
They then consider a reduction for a guilty plea, usually one third off the fine or final sentence.
Any compensation and costs are decided and the sentence is announced in court, along with the reasons for it.