A magistrate is someone who has the authority to enforce laws, typically within a limited jurisdiction such as a province or county. The exact role of a magistrate within the legal system varies, depending on the nation which he or she serves. In some cases, for example, a magistrate is a judge who serves at a very high level, while in other instances a magistrate is simply a justice of the peace, charged with enforcing minor infractions.
The word is derived from the Latin magister, which means “master.” Around the Middle Ages, the term “magistrat” emerged in English, referring to a civil officer charged with enforcing the law, and in 1374, the modern form of the word emerged. The underlying concept of a magistrate is quite ancient; the Romans, for example, had civil officers much like our modern magistrates.
As a general rule, a magistrate handles minor infractions like petty theft, traffic violations, and similar small crimes with very set and clear punishments. By taking a caseload of less important crimes, magistrates free up judges in higher ranks of the judicial system, allowing them to focus on more complex cases. This also makes the legal system more efficient, by ensuring that trials can be held reasonably quickly.
Typically, a magistrate has authority in the district in which he or she works, but no jurisdiction beyond this point. Magistrates can send people to jail, assess fines for various crimes, dismiss cases, release people on bail, and perform an assortment of similar legal tasks. They can also preside over trials, hear evidence, and discuss the legal ramifications of various cases with legal professionals like lawyers.
The job requirements to become a magistrate vary, again depending on the region in which he or she works. Some sort of education such a bachelor's degree is typically required, along with interest in and knowledge of the law. Magistrates must also be able to sit in justice fairly and without prejudice, handing down appropriate sentences for various infractions and ensuring that the law is enforced uniformly and appropriately.