​​What is the difference between a Judge and a Magistrate?

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.

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 and 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 them 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. Their judgement will often preside over appeals from the lower courts.

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.

What is a Magistrate?

Magistrates operate in the Magistrates Court. They often hear criminal cases that are not punishable on indictment ie. 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

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