Year

2003

Degree Name

Master of Laws (Hons.)

Department

Faculty of Law

Abstract

Magistrates hear about 98% of the criminal cases and about 90% the civil cases in courts in Australia.

This thesis examines the understanding magistrates have of their work. It provides an analysis of what magistrates do in court and their understanding of this work. The core data is based on reflections by and discussion with magistrates about what they do in court and the data identifies three core aspects of their daily work experience: decision-making, communication and work environment. The thesis shows how these concepts are themselves interlinked.

The thesis examines some (very little) 'official' or 'objective' information on what magistrates do or are thought to do, prepared by government and other commentators. This is supplemented by other data - some collated in the course of this research and some gathered from public sources described in the thesis. My thesis also relies on the researcher's own knowledge and experience as a lawyer, a practising magistrate, a participant in this research project and a researcher. These personal sources of information contribute to the interpretation of the data and the conclusions.

The data show that magistrates deal with very heavy workloads in physical and intellectual isolation. They hear many cases in unfamiliar areas of law. Their jurisdiction is expanding. The interview and other data indicate that magistrates are conscious of the impact of their decisions in the lives of the people who appear before them and of community expectations. Such decisions cannot be delegated and magistrates must accept responsibility for them. These factors contribute to a stressful work environment.

From where magistrates sit on the bench they have, of necessity, a narrow view. The weight of numbers and length of lists is such that they must be active and sometimes pro-active participants in the management of the processes of the court. The data shows how often they must make and communicate their decisions. Most of the time, magistrates are required to make quick decisions with little time for reflection.

The researcher concludes that opportunities for magistrates to appreciate and understand their work are limited. Arising from this a proposal is made whereby magistrates may be able to gain a greater and better appreciation of the work they do. It is suggested that magistrates be encouraged to engage in a process of mutual observation, reflection and discussion subject to agreed protocols.

Unlike much research in this area, this dissertation portrays the view from the Bench.

It is of vital importance that magistrates have a good understanding of their work if they are to do their work well. It is also of equal importance to the community because the first point of contact between an ordinary member of the community and the justice system is likely to be an attendance at a magistrate's court. This dissertation provides insight into the understanding magistrates have of their work and hence is of value to magistrates, the community and enhancement of the system of justice.

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