There is an essential difference between procedure in the magistrates’ courts and in the higher courts in that magistrates are judges of both law and fact and have the dual functions of deciding both guilt and sentence, whereas on indictment responsibility for conviction rests with the jury while sentence is the concern of the judge. Proposals to transfer offences from the higher to the magistrates’ courts have always met with the objection that they would infringe the right of the citizen to be tried by jury. In spite of this, the process of relegating offences to summary trial which began a century ago accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s. The reason for this was not only that the confidence of Parliament and the public in the lay magistracy rose with the greater reliability and competence of the justices, but because this coincided with an increasing need to relieve pressure on the higher criminal courts. The Criminal Justice Act 1961 extended the list of indictable offences triable summarily and in 1975 the James Committee1 was set up for the express purpose of finding ways to relieve pressure on the Crown Court by extending the jurisdiction of the magistrates. The committee made a number of recommendations in this direction but only the least important were implemented (Criminal Law Act 1977), as the combined legal and civil liberties lobby secured the defeat of those proposals which would have given magistrates exclusive jurisdiction in minor cases where the personal reputation of the accused was at stake.
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- 3.Samples of a few urban and rural benches taken in 1951 and 1974 suggested that the percentage of magistrates who could drive had risen from 78 to 93 between the two dates. These samples were not wholly reliable but the latter figure is supported by a study conducted by Roger Hood between 1965 and 1967 which showed that in his sample nearly 90 per cent of magistrates could drive (Roger Hood, Sentencing the Motoring Offender (London: Heinemann, 1972) p. 61).Google Scholar