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In many places, magistrate court is the lowest level of the judicial system. Sometimes known as the people's court, it is where one can go to resolve a dispute in small claims court. It is often the court where someone who has been charged with a crime makes his initial court appearance. Traffic violations are also often heard in magistrate court.
When it comes to small-claims court cases heard by a magistrate, or the judge who presides over magistrate court, plaintiffs and defendants usually do not need the services of an attorney. The plaintiff is the one who files a lawsuit in small claims court; the defendant is the one against whom the lawsuit has been served. These lawsuits involve disputes such as when a landlord hopes to evict a tenant. Financial damages in disputes heard in small claims court must not exceed a maximum amount that varies from location to location.
Magistrate court is where most criminal cases are first heard. It is often the only court that hears the case of someone who disputes a traffic violation or has been charged with breaking an ordinance in the community where he lives. Even a defendant who has been charged with a serious felony, such as murder or robbery, will usually make his first court appearance in magistrate court.
This court is where a defendant will enter a plea to the crime with which he has been charged. The magistrate judge at these initial hearings may also decide legal issues, such as whether to grant bail. Bail is the money or property pledged to the court as a guarantee that a defendant who is released will return for ensuing court hearings.
The use of a magistrate as an officer of the court dates back to ancient Rome. It is a judicial position in most of Western Europe and in countries that are former colonies of those countries. The duties and responsibilities of a magistrate judge vary from country to country.
In the United States, a magistrate judge may be elected or, depending upon where he serves, he may be appointed to the court. A magistrate judge is often appointed after completing several years of practice as a lawyer. In some communities, the position of magistrate judge is a part-time job. Someone who is a part-time magistrate judge may also continue his private practice as a lawyer.
In England and Wales (Scotland is a different story) magistrates are part-time and unpaid (except for travel expenses) and have basic legal training. There are three magistrates at each trial with a designated chairman. There is always a professional legal adviser additionally present.
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