What Makes A Person Qualified For The Position of A Magistrate?

To understand whether a magistrate ought to be a lawyer or not, we first need to understand the true meaning of the term ‘magistrate’.

A magistrate is an official who is entrusted with the power and responsibility to enforce the law within a specified jurisdiction. He/she is mostly concerned with misdemeanor matters. For example, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, trespassing, traffic violations, etc. Thus, a magistrate is a judicial officer who is in charge of petty cases thereby helping in the reduction of overload of the judges dealing with complex and serious crimes, thus, making the judicial system more efficient.

Despite the role played by a magistrate, he/she is not a judge. A judge is an arbitrator, deciding matters in a court, be it civil or criminal, petty or complex, whereas a magistrate is one having restricted power, appointed by the judges of the high court of the state to enforce the law. A magistrate is known to have powers more of an administrator. However, section 19 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 stipulates situations where the said magistrate or like persons are deemed as a judge.

  • A collector exercising jurisdiction in a suit under Act 10 of 1859 is a judge.
  • A magistrate exercising jurisdiction in respect of a charge in which he has the power to sentence to fine or imprisonment, with or without appeal, is a judge.
  • A member of a Panchayat which has power, under Regulation Vll, 1816, of the Madras Code, to try and determine suits, is a judge.

The meaning of the term differs from country to country- The original meaning of the term ‘Magistrate’ can be traced back to Ancient Rome. A “Magistrates, is one who held the highest rank as a government officer. He was a man in possession of both judicial as well as executive powers. Hence, the modern use of the term ‘magistrate’ to denote both judicial and executive officers.

With regard to the concept laid down by the Romans, in India the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 provides a classification of magistrates:

  • A Chief Judicial Magistrate.
  • A Sub-divisional Magistrate or a Metropolitan Magistrate.
  •  A judicial magistrate of the first class.
  • Executive Magistrate.

These classes of magistrates are provided with limited authority as opposed to that of a judge.

Similarly in Portugal, the term being used to designate prosecutors and judges, the term “Magistrado” also denoted certain government officials, for example, former civil governors of the district. These were called Administrative Magistrates to distinguish them from the Judicial Magistrates.

What makes a person qualified for the position of a magistrate?

Now that we are clear as to what a magistrate is, we can move further to the qualifications which are required to hold the position of a magistrate. Since every country has conferred different types of powers on their Magistrates, the eligibility criterion differs from the place.

For instance, in Rome, Magistrates were not lawyers but were merely advised by those jurists who were experts in the legal field. [1]

Similarly, in England and Wales, anyone who volunteers to hold the position of a magistrate could be appointed having no prior formal training in respect of law, to play a judicial role with regard to minor matters.[2]

The situation is quite diverse in the United States. In some states, the magistrate (or justices of the peace as are commonly known) doesn’t need a law degree to put defendants behind the bars. There are some, for example, Texas, Montana, South Carolina, etc., which permit a non-lawyer or any person of basic intelligence to be a magistrate and hand down jail sentences for misdemeanors without a right to seek new trial before a qualified and competent magistrate.[3]

When it comes to India, a magistrate is required to be trained in the legal field, i.e., having a degree in law from an esteemed college/university and should not be less than 21 or more than 35 years of age. Because of the prevailing categories of magistrates, the qualifications might differ to some extent. Almost all the magistrates should have the basic legal knowledge, formal training under an institution, i.e., possessing a law degree. However, an executive magistrate need not have to go through the same kind of training. Since the judicial magistrates mostly deal with judicial matters, it becomes mandatory for them to at least have a degree in law, if not experience in the legal field as a lawyer, so that they are well versed with what comes before them.

A district magistrate/collector is an example of an executive magistrate. In such capacity, they are mainly in charge of administrative matters with a few judicial matters. Such an officer is not mandated to have a degree in law, since his area is restricted to the collection of revenue, management of taxes, and other like matters. For instance, a person who has qualified to become an IAS officer and is then designated as a district magistrate, he will be entitled to the powers similar to that of a judicial magistrate, however, restricted in certain sense. In India there used to be a three-year prior legal practice requirement to apply for the post of a civil judge or a magistrate. This was later struck down by the Supreme Court in 2002 in the case of All India Judge’s Association and others V. Union of India.[4]

What happens when a duty to provide justice is in incompetent hands?

The situation may have been acceptable in the 19th century when there was a scarcity of lawyers and law schools but with the advancement of time and with crimes getting more and more complex with time, having a magistrate having no legal training can raise serious questions about Due Process and the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.[5] “What’s the point of having a legally trained lawyer if the judge can’t understand what they’re saying?”[6]

To explain such a case we can take an example of South Carolina’s system for judges and magistrates, which creates a proliferating ground for incompetence and corruption. Most of the magistrates don’t even have a fundamental knowledge of law let alone the experience as a lawyer, but they have persisting effects on the vulnerable people who come before them. It is the citizens who must fend themselves before judges, who lack formal training in law and whose errors can result in punishing consequences for the defendants. The same ineptitude can be seen in the trial of Sasha Darby’s life[7], where she was thrown in jail when she could not pay $1000 fine. She later lost her job and her home.

In circumstances like this, where a non-lawyer or an incompetent person, possessing merely basic intellect, is handed over a highly responsible position like that of a magistrate, justice is exploited. These posts are overseen by political appointees, and these inadequate people are selected through a process where ‘connections’ are placed over ‘qualifications’. State senators are almost exclusively in control as to such appointments and they have hoarded the courts with friends, political allies, and legal novices.

Present Scenario:

We can have a sigh of relief as such a situation is not present in India. It may not be necessary for a magistrate to have long years of experience as a lawyer in a court of law, he must, however, have some sort of legal training or background, i.e., a bachelor’s degree in law, for him to qualify for the position of a magistrate. Experience of three years before being able to qualify for the position of a magistrate has been struck down, yet the same has been criticized a lot. These law graduates are merely trusted with drafting pleadings in a private lawyer’s chamber and never given a task to argue. Any lawyer worth his salt knows that mere knowledge from books does not subdue a practical experience in a court of law.

As the famous American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once put it, The life of the law is not logic but experience. If the power to administer justice is in someone’s hands who can barely comprehend what the matter is about, people will lose faith in the whole judicial process. Although not a requisite for a person to be a lawyer in order to become a magistrate, it is of utility if some exposure or experience is accompanied by the degree of law. It is also true that District Magistrate/Collector ought not to have a law degree, since their position is more of an administrator.

“Without a magistrate court, the wheels of justice turn, but they turn slow. It would probably put us in lockdown mode.”[8]


[1]  http://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theatlantica.com/amp/article/515568/.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid

[4]  All India Judge’s Association and others V. Union of India 2002 4 SCC 247

[5]  http://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theatlantica.com/amp/article/515568/

[6]  Stuart Banner, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor

[7]  http://www.google.com/amp/s/www.propublica.org/article/these-judges-can-have-less-training-than-barbers-but-still-decide-thousands-of-cases-each-year/amp

[8] Judge Danny Singleton, head of the statewide association for magistrates and municipal court judges.

This article is authored by Niyati Upadhyay, Fourth-Year, B.A. LL.B, Allahabad University.

Also Read – How to Prepare for a Magistrate Interview?

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