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Magistrates' Court


Magistrates (also known as "lay justices" or "Justices of the Peace") are unqualified and (save for their expenses) unpaid volunteers who hear criminal (and some civil) cases in the Magistrates' Court. Three magistrates will hear a case together. They are assisted on the law by a legal adviser/clerk who normally sits in front of them. There are approximately 30,000 magistrates in the English and Welsh jurisdiction serving 300 courts.

Magistrates' Court

Magistrates' Courts hear approximately 95 per cent of criminal prosecutions. They are normally presided over by magistrates (also known as "lay justices" or "Justices of the Peace"). More complex/serious cases may be heard by District Judges (previously known as Stipendiary Magistrates) alone.

Magistrates (and to a lesser extent District Judges) are assisted by a court clerk who will sit in front of them and provide them with impartial guidance on the law and procedure.

Compared to a Crown Court, the Magistrates' Court is a lot less formal. It hears less serious allegations and its sentencing powers are normally limited to imposing sentences of up to six months' imprisonment (save for where consecutive sentences are passed).

A defendant may find themselves in a Magistrates' Court in one of three ways: by summons, by police bail or by being produced in police custody.

Solicitors and Barristers have "rights of audience" in the Magistrates' Court.

The Magistrates' Court also deals with some family law matters and civil matters, such as cash detention/forfeiture proceedings.


Manslaughter is a criminal offence that is made out in a variety of different circumstances. In each case the defendant will have been found to be liable for the victim's death.

Manslaughter is a less serious offence than murder and crucially does not carry a mandatory life sentence. In fact, whilst the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, there is no minimum sentence.

Voluntary Manslaughter

The term "voluntary manslaughter" applies where the defendant has killed the victim and intended to kill him/her or cause seriously bodily injury. However, the defendant is not liable for murder if he/she is able to establish one of following partial defences:-

  1. Provocation
  2. Diminished Responsibility
  3. That he/she was involved in a failed suicide pact with the victim

These are partial defences because whilst they can be raised in relation to an allegation of murder they will not result in the defendant's acquittal, but an alternative verdict of manslaughter.

Involuntary Manslaughter

There are two forms of involuntary manslaughter: Unlawful act/constructive manslaughter and Manslaughter by gross negligence.

Unlawful act/constructive manslaughter

Unlawful act/constructive manslaughter applies where the defendant is found to have committed an unlawful act, likely to cause harm to an individual, that results in the victim's death, notwithstanding that the death was not foreseen or intended.

An example might be throwing a television out of a tenth-storey window and unintentionally killing someone below.

Gross negligence manslaughter

Gross negligence manslaughter applies where the follow criteria are met:-

  • The defendant owed a duty to the deceased to take care;
  • The defendant breached this duty; -The breach caused the death of the deceased; and
  • The defendant's negligence showed such a disregard for the life and safety of others as to amount to a crime and deserve punishment.

Gross negligence manslaughter requires the defendant to owe the victim a duty of care and thus prosecutions are most commonly seen where this is some sort of relationship between the two (e.g. teacher-pupil, doctor-patient, electrician-customer). The normal civil test for negligence does not apply; the negligence has to be so severe that it is considered criminal.

In 2008 the separate offence of corporate manslaughter was introduced to hold corporations and other organisations accountable for deaths where a negligent health safety regime had contributed to an individual's death.

It is possible for individuals who cause a death by driving to be charged with manslaughter. However, more often than not specific offences are charged (e.g. causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving, Causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by driving when unlicensed, uninsured or disqualified).


Mitigation is the process of highlighting the extenuating circumstances of an offence or an offender after conviction with a view to a persuading a judge to impose as lenient a sentence as possible.

Mitigation relating to an offence might include drawing the judge's attention to factual issues that make the defendant's actions sound less serious than the offence may suggest. For example, in the case of a common assault, a defendant may plead guilty but state in mitigation that they had been provoked. If such a plea in mitigation is accepted, the defendant should receive a lesser sentence than if the assault was unprovoked.

It is often difficult, if not impossible, to put forward mitigation relating to an offence where a defendant has pleaded not guilty and been convicted after a trial. This is because the defendant has already been disbelieved about what happened (say for instance, a defendant ran an alibi defence at trial stating he was not at the scene) and there is little value in anything he says to the court.

Mitigation relating to an offender may relate to a variety of circumstances, including their health, their good character, work they do for charity or the fact they have dependents who will suffer if they receive a custodial sentence.


Murder is an offence at common law defined as "the unlawful killing of a human being, under the Queen's Peace, with 'malice aforethought'".

The defendant must be shown

(1)   to have committed an act which was the substantial and operating cause of the victim's death and

(2)   To have had an intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm. As such, murder is an offence of specific intent.

Murder carries a mandatory life sentence, although it is normal for a judge to set a tariff which is the number of years after which the convicted defendant will be eligible for release on licence. The convicted defendant will remain on licence for life.