The types of cases that go before magistrates are minor offenses or infractions with limited penalties. A magistrates’ court is typically the lowest court in a common law jurisdiction. In many countries, this type of court is used to dispose of the large majority of petty civil and criminal cases. Some jurisdictions give the court the further power to review and send more serious cases to a higher court.
Magistrates can be legally trained district judges or justice of the peace-type laypersons with no legal training who are simply appointed to the task. The power of the court is derived by statute that limits the type of case the court can hear, either by subject matter or by severity. In most jurisdictions, a magistrates’ court issues summary justice, with no right to appeal the court’s decision. Some jurisdictions give the court more power such as in England and Wales, where the court indicts cases to the Crown Court.
A magistrates’ court is considered a court of petty offenses. The defining factor of the types of cases that the court can take up is often the maximum penalty allowed under the law. In England, the court can only hear cases with fines up to £5,000 British Pounds or imprisonment of up to six months. There is also a system of regular and special magistrates in Hong Kong. A regular magistrate can hear cases with a maximum penalty of two years jail time or a fine up to $100,000 Hong Kong Dollars (HKD). The special magistrate cannot hear anything that requires prison time but can impose a fine up to $50,000 HKD.
Some jurisdictions limit the court by subject matter. In South Africa, the courts have broader authority to accept cases but are excluded from hearing cases involving murder, rape, robbery, or high treason, no matter what the maximum penalty for the crime. Some countries specify a magistrates’ court to hear general types of cases, such as juvenile, traffic, or family law matters.
Many countries, including England and Australia, have revamped their court system to rename and consolidate courts. Most have tended to keep or adopt a magistrates’ court rather than to continue using local terminology, such as police court or court of petty sessions. This has added uniformity across common law jurisdictions. An exception is the U.S., where states typically use the term municipal court to designate the lowest court that handles minor cases.