The minimum requirement before one can become a magistrate is to be a qualified legal practitioner of at least five years standing. Most magistrates, in reality, are vastly 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 $5000. These are sometimes referred to as ‘indictable matters tried summarily’. This means matters that could go before the Supreme Court, but which 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. That is to say, a magistrate (if the defendant pleads not guilty) conducts a summary hearing where the prosecution calls evidence and witnesses are subject to cross-examination. A summary trial is a short trial.

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 the same, save for a small number of rules that differ as a result of procedural differences.

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 arbiter of fact and law whilst in the Supreme Court the judge is the sole arbiter of the law, whilst the jury decides the facts. The jury then apply their findings of fact to the law as the law has been explained to them by the judge.

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