Preparing for your visit
We recommend contacting the court in advance so you can find out more about when to attend. You can find and visit any court you like for your observations and see opening hours and contact details.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) publishes public lists of hearings. If you’re interested in observing a particular case type, search for it on Courtserve.
For your two required observations as part of your application, you should only observe magistrates’ sittings, and not District Judges. Staff at the court will be able to tell you which court(s) have magistrates sitting.
What to expect
- When you arrive at the court, you must pass through security. This is to check that you are not carrying something which is not allowed in the courtroom. You may take in phones and cameras, but you must not take photos or videos with them.
- After going through security, please attend reception and let them know you wish to observe magistrates’ cases. They will let you know what cases are being heard that day.
- You can observe hearings from the public gallery. This tends to be at the back of each court room.
What will I see?
Magistrates deal with three main types of offence:
- Summary offences – these are less serious offences, such as speeding and criminal damage. In such cases, the defendant would likely not get a trial by jury.
- Indicatable-only offences – these are much more serious offences, such as murder, manslaughter and robbery. Generally, these cases must go to a more senior court called a Crown Court. For such cases, magistrates will decide whether to release the person accused on bail.
- Either-way offences – these can be dealt with either by a magistrate court or in the Crown Court. They include offences such as theft and handling stolen goods.
Magistrates hear cases on a broad range of issues. The court staff will be able to tell you more about what the hearings in different courtrooms are about.
Who will I see?
Courtrooms are often busy. There will be several people present in the courtroom at any time.
No matter what court you attend, most attendees will be one of the following:
- Magistrates usually sit as benches of three. One person known as a Presiding Justice, who acts as the chair, sits in the middle. Two other people, called wingers, sit on either side. All three magistrates contribute equally to the decision-making, but only the Presiding Justice speaks on their behalf in court. Magistrates may also sometimes sit as a pair.
- Legal adviser sits in front of the magistrates and provides them with legal advice when required. They are qualified solicitors or barristers, and ensure that all proper procedures are followed.
- Usher – they prepare the court room for the hearing. They will ensure that everyone involved in the trial is taken to the courtroom at the right time. They will ask all attendees to rise for the magistrates at the start and close of a hearing.
- Defendant – this is the person who has been accused of the offence. For more serious offences, they may stand in a secure room, known as a dock, away from the other people in the courtroom.
- Defence and prosecution – they face the legal adviser and magistrates. The prosecuting solicitor presents the prosecution case on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The defence solicitor protects the interests of their client – the defendant.
- The court manager – they oversee the cases that are being brought before the court. The magistrates and legal adviser will liaise with them about upcoming cases for that day’s sitting.
- The witnesses – witnesses may also give evidence and answer questions, from the witness box.
Watch this video to learn more about a typical magistrates court and its key attendees:
You will be asked to rise, or stand, when the magistrates enter or leave the room. This might be for a break, or to agree a decision.
Photography, filming, or audio recording in the courtroom are not allowed.
Making the most of your observations
The court observations are the best way to learn more about what a magistrate does in their role. They show you up-close the important decisions that magistrates make every day.
We therefore recommend that you visit multiple courtrooms during your observations.
You will also be asked about your observations as part of your application. You therefore may want to think about the following questions:
Before you attend:
- What do I expect to see at my court observations?
- What subject areas would I be interested to hear a case on?
- Which parts of the magistrate role would I most like to learn more about?
After you attend:
- What did I find most interesting about my observations? Was there anything I saw which was surprising?
- How did it feel to see magistrates making important decisions on cases?
- Do I understand why the magistrates made the decisions they did?
- What would I do if I were one of the magistrates making these decisions?