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What Types of Cases Go Before Magistrates?

By Terry Masters
Updated May 17, 2024
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The types of cases that go before magistrates are minor offenses or infractions with limited penalties. A magistrates’ court is typically the lowest court in a common law jurisdiction. In many countries, this type of court is used to dispose of the large majority of petty civil and criminal cases. Some jurisdictions give the court the further power to review and send more serious cases to a higher court.

Magistrates can be legally trained district judges or justice of the peace-type laypersons with no legal training who are simply appointed to the task. The power of the court is derived by statute that limits the type of case the court can hear, either by subject matter or by severity. In most jurisdictions, a magistrates’ court issues summary justice, with no right to appeal the court’s decision. Some jurisdictions give the court more power such as in England and Wales, where the court indicts cases to the Crown Court.

A magistrates’ court is considered a court of petty offenses. The defining factor of the types of cases that the court can take up is often the maximum penalty allowed under the law. In England, the court can only hear cases with fines up to £5,000 British Pounds or imprisonment of up to six months. There is also a system of regular and special magistrates in Hong Kong. A regular magistrate can hear cases with a maximum penalty of two years jail time or a fine up to $100,000 Hong Kong Dollars (HKD). The special magistrate cannot hear anything that requires prison time but can impose a fine up to $50,000 HKD.

Some jurisdictions limit the court by subject matter. In South Africa, the courts have broader authority to accept cases but are excluded from hearing cases involving murder, rape, robbery, or high treason, no matter what the maximum penalty for the crime. Some countries specify a magistrates’ court to hear general types of cases, such as juvenile, traffic, or family law matters.

Many countries, including England and Australia, have revamped their court system to rename and consolidate courts. Most have tended to keep or adopt a magistrates’ court rather than to continue using local terminology, such as police court or court of petty sessions. This has added uniformity across common law jurisdictions. An exception is the U.S., where states typically use the term municipal court to designate the lowest court that handles minor cases.

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Discussion Comments

By titans62 — On Sep 20, 2011

@TreeMan - The salaries can actually be pretty surprising, at least to me. I don't know the exact number off the top of my head, but federal district judges make somewhere around $150,000 per year. I would guess magistrates are slightly below that.

I know everyone has their different opinions, but I've always felt judges should make closer to what an upper middle class person makes, so that they are assured they are taking their position out of wanting to be fair rather than wanting the salary.

Does anyone know about how magistrates have evolved over time? I was reading something about ancient Rome, and the Roman magistrates were actually very powerful. They could order any punishment they deemed fit. I'm curious whether magistrates were common in places like Greece or even ancient Asian or American cultures.

By Emilski — On Sep 19, 2011

@TreeMan - At least from what I know, magistrates are much more common in England and other parts of the world. In the UK, you can apply to be a magistrate, and if selected, sit on a panel of other magistrates who work together and decide cases. These magistrates are usually advised by a clerk who is more familiar with the legal system.

In the United States, magistrate judges are often much more well trained, and have usually practiced law at some point. You are right that there are state and federal magistrates with different duties. Besides civil courts, magistrates can issue warrants hear some misdemeanor cases. I'm not sure about what the salaries are.

By TreeMan — On Sep 18, 2011

How do you get appointed to be a magistrate? I'm sure it would start to get kind of boring after a while of hearing people sue for things that are usually pretty frivolous, but at least to me it sounds like it would be neat.

Are there different types of magistrates? For example, could there be state and federal magistrates that have different levels of power? Once someone becomes a magistrate, how much do they usually make compared to a real judge?

By Izzy78 — On Sep 17, 2011

I like hearing about how all of the courts differ depending on location. I'm surprised by how much power a magistrate gets in Hong Kong.

At least in the United States, magistrates usually hear small claims cases that don't exceed $5000 and can't sentence jail time. I think that is good, since it is probably better that a formal judge make decisions that could have a huge impact on someone's life.

I would be very interested if someone who was familiar with courts outside the United States could compare the differences.

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