Magistrate vs Judge

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Both judges and magistrates have an important responsibility when deciding cases via interpretation and application of the law. While the terms ‘judge’ and ‘magistrate’ are often used in tandem, there are some key and distinctive differences between the two. Magistrates often have a limited scope of authority, hearing shorter and less complex matters. Judges  however, often have great authority in the courtroom, deciding on long and complex cases. This article investigates the role of both judiciary members, in order to help highlight the key differences between both roles.

Key points:

  • Judges sit in the District Court and other higher courts 
  • Judges primarily hear more complex legal matters, in both the criminal and civil context
  • Magistrates operate in the Magistrates Court
  • Magistrates tend to deal with shorter, less legally complex criminal matters

What is a judge?

A judge is a public official with authority to hear cases in a court of law and pronounce judgement. Judges often sit in the District Court but may also sit in the higher courts, such as the Supreme Court and the High Court. More commonly in the criminal context, judges may have to preside over jury trials. When presiding over jury trials, a judge will have to explain complex legal matters to the jury in simple terms. A judge will assist the jury in understanding what they need to consider when assessing whether a person is guilty or innocent of a crime. Moreover, judges decide the penalty that applies to people who plead guilty or are found guilty of criminal offences. When considering both sides’ submissions in a case, judges must apply appropriate sentences in line with the law and relevant sentencing principles. Sentencing principles are derived from both common law and legislation. Judges must balance a range of factors to reach an appropriate sentence. Judges are required to provide reasons when a sentence is imposed.

Judges may also hear civil cases, which generally involve orders that one party rectify another party’s problem through payment or performance of certain actions. In this context also, judges are required to deliver judgements which are generally available to the public to see. In either circumstance, judges often preside over appeals from the lower courts as per the appeal hierarchy of the courts. The appeal function is an important aspect of Australia’s judicial system, and the judges within the courts facilitate this process. 

What is a magistrate?

Magistrates operate in the Magistrates Court. They often hear criminal cases that are not punishable on indictment (i.e., cases that don’t require committal or trial by jury). These are called summary offences, which includes traffic matters, low degrees of assault, minor stealing and offensive behaviour. Magistrates can also hear applications for apprehended violence orders (AVO’s), where one person seeks a restraining order against another. Magistrate’s often hear multiple cases in a single day.

These less serious offences are dealt with ‘summarily’. Therefore, based on the available evidence before the court, a case can be decided by the Magistrate. If the defendant pleads guilty to a minor offence, the Magistrate generally deals with the case immediately. If a defendant pleads not guilty, the Magistrate sets a hearing date, giving both prosecution and defence time to prepare their cases. 

Magistrates conduct committal proceedings to determine if there is enough evidence for more serious matters such as armed robbery, to be heard in the District or even Supreme Courts.

The civil jurisdiction of the Magistrates Court is subject to various limitations. In Queensland, the Magistrates Court can hear matters up to the value of $150,000 for civil matters. Matters with claims higher than this are heard by Judges in the District, Supreme or High Courts.

The Magistrates Court also comprises of:

–    Children’s Court for most offences committed by children and young people.

–    Coroners Court for hearing inquiries into deaths that occur in unusual circumstances

Legal advice

If you have any doubts about the roles of a judge or magistrate or how they would handle a matter, you should consult a lawyer. Legal Kitz’ friendly team consists of highly experienced solicitors who can assist you with any commercial matters. Book now for a FREE 30 minute consultation.  

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