The Blog

What does a judge actually do?

Apr 11, 2023 | Uncategorised

There are a number of misconceptions about British judges floating around. One especially persistent one is that judges use gavels – so much so that there’s a whole Twitter account dedicated to it. In fact, this is an American custom that we all know from films and TV and not something you’ll ever see in a British court.

Most of us know what judges do, more or less. They hear evidence in criminal and civil courts. They make rulings and pass sentences based on this evidence. It’s they who have the final say.

But there are different types of judges and they sit in different courts. In this article, we break down the different types and their roles and take a look at their day-to-day activities.

Criminal cases

Over 95% of criminal cases are heard in a magistrates’ court – either by three magistrates or by a district judge.

Magistrates aren’t the same as judges. Magistrates are trained volunteers from the local community who can decide on offences that carry up to twelve months in prison or an unlimited fine. They aren’t legally trained, but they are assisted by a solicitor or barrister to make sure that their judgments are in line with the law.

By contrast, a district judge is legally trained and salaried. District judges are usually called in to deal with longer and more complex cases than those dealt with by magistrates.

The magistrates’ court handles cases known as “summary offences” – things like motoring offences, criminal damage and common assault. Occasionally, it will deal with more serious offences like burglary and drug offences. Anything more serious – murder, rape and robbery, for instance – is handled by the Crown Court.

In the magistrates’ court, the magistrates or district judge reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty and then decide the sentence. There’s no jury involved.

Crown Court is where the more serious criminal cases are heard. They’re organised slightly differently. They’re led by a circuit judge or recorder (see below) and they have a jury – twelve people selected at random.

Although the jury receives some direction from the judge, it’s they who are entrusted with the verdict. However, if the case is especially serious then a High Court judge will sit in with the jury.

Sentencing is left to magistrates and judges – be it imprisonment, a community punishment or a fine.

Civil cases

Civil cases start in County Court and are presided over by a full-time district judge. They come about when a person or business thinks their rights have been infringed on – and whereas a criminal case is brought by the government against an individual, a civil case is between two individuals or businesses.

What does the judge do before a trial?

The judge has to do a lot of preparation before proceedings begin. This includes reading the case papers, which include:

  • The charge(s) against the defendant.
  • Witness statements.
  • Exhibits.
  • Any applications made by any party about the admissibility of evidence.

In the Crown Court, the judge swears in the jury. They give the jurors directions about their role in the trial, as well as their pledge to remain confidential for the duration of the trial.

What does a judge do during the trial?

The judge’s role during the trial is to make sure that the case is conducted fairly and that all parties are able to present their cases. It’s the judge’s responsibility to decide whether evidence is admissible or not.

The judge then sums up the case. They recap the key points of the case and what the prosecution is trying to prove. They may also direct the jury by pointing out strengths and weaknesses in each side’s case. They then make clear what the jury must do before the jurors retire to the deliberation room and reach a verdict.

What’s involved in sentencing?

If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge decides on a sentence. This is based on the facts of the case and influenced by:

  • The harm done to the victim
  • How blameworthy the offender is

Proverbially, the sentence should “fit the crime”. Judges have different types of sentences at their disposal, from fines to community service to imprisonment.

What’s an appeal?

If a defendant disagrees with their conviction or their sentence, they can appeal. In this situation, it’s the judge who decides whether to grant permission. Both criminal and civil case appeals go to the Court of Appeal.

In the Court of Appeal, the case tends to be heard by a Lord or Lady Justice and two High Court judges.

What is a circuit judge?

Circuit judges can deal with either criminal or civil cases. Some handle family cases. A circuit judge will have sat as a recorder or district judge before assuming the post.

What is a recorder?

A recorder is a fully qualified solicitor or barrister with at least ten years’ experience working as a part-time judge. It tends to be the first step in a judicial career – and recorders will often work privately too. They sit in both Crown and County Courts.

Because of the nature of the role, they usually deal with less complicated matters than circuit judges.

How much are judges paid?

Full-time judges are paid from a starter salary of £91,000 a year up to £267,000. They typically work 37 to 42 hours a week between 08:00 and 18:00.

What do judges do every day?

Much of a judge’s time is taken up with preparing for and holding trials – and on top of the duties we’ve discussed, they may take expert opinion, write reports and stay abreast of changes to the law.

So there you have it – your brief guide to judicial life. It’s not all wigs and gavels, you know…

At Milners, we pride ourselves on providing knowledgeable, professional, no-nonsense legal advice in Yorkshire and the rest of the UK. If you’re looking for legal guidance on a personal or business matter, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


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