A county magistrate is a judicial official who oversees minor legal matters in a regional court. Magistrates preside over a court to hear small claims cases and some criminal matters, and can also issue warrants on request from law enforcement. Not all regions use a county magistrate system and in those that do, the scope of the court can vary. Members of the public who encounter the legal system may find themselves in front of the magistrate at some point.
In a typical magistrate's court, the magistrate oversees all cases, hears the evidence, and issues a ruling. People can request a jury trial, but one is not provided by default. The number of jurors may vary from six to 12. As with other courts, the court uses records on registered voters and drivers to call people for jury service. The magistrate may set up several days for jury trials each month and request a small pool of jurors to meet the need.
The county magistrate can perform a number of different functions. Law enforcement agents who need arrest warrants, search warrants, and other court orders can request them from the court. Some courts are open late or at odd hours to accommodate requests that come in at any time, with a county magistrate on duty to handle these requests. Before issuing a warrant, the magistrate needs probable cause from law enforcement officers.
Small claims matters like disputes between landlords and tenants can be brought before a county magistrate. The court typically has a monetary cutoff to determine if the damages are low enough for the magistrate to handle the case. In cases where more money is at stake, people will need to file the case in a different venue. County magistrates can also handle minor criminal matters and issue judgments such as fines and jail sentences.
Using a county magistrate can lighten the load on the regional court system by diverting minor matters. This allows bigger courts to focus on larger cases without being clogged. Moving cases through court quickly is a legal mandate in some nations, such as the United States, which promises citizens a “speedy trial” under the Sixth Amendment. Handling legal matters more quickly is also to the advantage of law enforcement and the courts, as it allows them to work with witnesses and experts while the case is fresh, and closes cases so they can move on to new investigations.