Magistrates are members of the public who voluntarily give up their time to preside over magistrates' courts. They need have no formal legal qualifications, although they are trained in court procedures.
The magistrates’ courts are a key part of the criminal justice system – virtually all criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court and over 95% of cases are also completed here. In addition, magistrates’ courts deal with many civil cases, mostly family matters plus liquor licensing and betting and gaming work. Cases in the magistrates’ courts are usually heard by panels of three magistrates (Justices of the Peace), of which there are around 30 000 in England and Wales.
Arguments made on behalf of a defendant who has admitted or been found guilty of an offence, in order to excuse or partly excuse the offence committed and attempt to minimise the sentence.
The vast majority of hearings in England and Wales are held in open court, with members of the public free to enter the courtroom and observe proceedings. Some sensitive cases, such as family matters, may be held "in camera", which means 'in the chamber' or in private.