Hearing a charge against you: Magistrates
The minimum requirement before a person can become a magistrate is to be a qualified legal practitioner of at least five years standing. Most magistrates, in reality, are much more experienced than the five year minimum. Magistrates can also hear some matters contained in the Criminal Code, for example, allegedly stealing property of a value of less than $5,000. These are sometimes referred to as ‘indictable matters tried summarily’. This means matters that could go before the Supreme Court, but can be heard and decided by a magistrate.
A magistrate sits alone and determines whether the charge brought before them is proved or not proved. A magistrate (if the defendant pleads not guilty) conducts a ‘summary hearing’. The prosecution and defence call evidence and witnesses are subject to cross-examination. A summary hearing is a short hearing. As in a jury trial in the Supreme Court, the defendant is not compelled to give evidence but may choose to do so – this is the ‘right to silence’. A jury trial will nearly always take longer than a summary trial.
The rules of evidence that govern the Supreme Court and the Magistrates Court are mostly the same. The Magistrates must direct themselves as to the law just as a judge would instruct a jury as to the law. In the Magistrates Court the magistrate is the sole decider of fact and law. In the Supreme Court the judge decides the law and the jury decides the facts. The jury then applies its findings of fact to the law. The law has been explained to them by the judge.